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Some upset by proposed change at St. Pete African-American history museum

Bill Law, St. Petersburg College president, left, and SPC chairman Deveron Gibbons confer. A plan would let the college start a new African-American museum.
Published May 21, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Through budget presentations and academic updates, they waited for an hour and a half, some sitting but many standing, for their chance to speak. Their poster-board signs of protest leaned against a chair in the audience: "DIVIDED WE FAIL," "TALK DON'T TAKE," "TOGETHER IS BETTER."

Nearly 20 angry and frustrated people came to the St. Petersburg College Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday because of an unexpected power struggle over control of a community museum.

The St. Petersburg Housing Authority owns the building in which the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum operates. On Thursday, the housing authority board is scheduled to vote on whether it will end its relationship with those currently in charge of the museum and instead lease the facility on Ninth Avenue S to SPC, which would open its own African-American museum. Because the Woodson board owns the name, SPC would need a new one.

On Tuesday, because the issue had become so contentious, housing authority commissioners said they would consider postponing the vote.

Woodson board members said they only learned of the possible change in control during a meeting two weeks ago at which staff from the college presented to the housing authority their plan for a new museum. On Monday, Ray Arsenault, a Woodson board member and history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, referred to the move as a "hostile takeover."

Irions hopes the college will one day buy the building.

The Woodson is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. According to the board, it has in 2014 hosted five exhibits and more than 20 programs. Its $47,000 budget for this year is supported with federal funds.

The museum, once the Jordan Park management office, was originally set to open in 2004 but didn't until 2006. The renovation of the 4,500-square-foot concrete block building was funded through a federal grant and has been run by the Woodson board since inception.

Supporters say they welcome a partnership with the college but are incensed that the museum might be wholly taken away.

Who first proposed the change in control remains unclear.

Members of the college's board say the housing authority approached them with the idea.

"They asked us to put a proposal together," said Chairman Deveron Gibbons. "To me, that's not a takeover."

Irions said he was "not certain how it actually came about." A spokeswoman later said it came up during a discussion between Gibbons and housing authority chair Delphinia Davis, but that conflicts with Davis' recollection.

"I'm not quite sure who brought it up first," she said. "We got wind that the college was interested in the building."

The fervor at Tuesday's meeting seemed to befuddle SPC president Bill Law.

"How we got to this, I don't have a good answer for you," he said, "and if you know how we got here whisper it in my ear because I can't connect the dots from what we were invited to do versus what our heart is telling us to do versus what we're being accused of doing."

Katie Mettler can be reached at kmettler@tampabay.com. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

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