The Baltimore Urban League took a major step yesterday on its road back from the brink of bankruptcy as organization leaders announced that Raymond V. Haysbert Sr., an established and respected businessman, had signed on as chairman of the board of directors.
"They approached me," said Haysbert, former chairman of Parks Sausage Co. "It was like a presentation: `We can't afford to lose this institution, and we don't want Baltimore to be besmirched by the failure of this institution.'"
Financial improprieties and huge debts almost killed the civil rights organization last year. Open rebellion reigned among board members as public accounts revealed poor financial management and unpaid bills. The board ended up firing the longtime league president, Roger I. Lyons.
Two-thirds of the board later retired or resigned. In September, auditors said the league had misspent most of $741,500 from a federal grant designated for a city job-training program. The auditors could not identify how the league had spent the money.
"It's been a very difficult year, no question about it," said J. Howard Henderson, who was named to replace Lyons. "I called all of my IOU's in, and I've been out here a long time."
Henderson said he and others set about restructuring the league's board and dealing with a huge debt that included mortgage payments for its headquarters at historic Orchard Street Church.
Many saw the purchase and $3.7 million renovation of the building, thought to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, as one of Lyons' biggest successes.
The church had been vacant for 17 years before Lyons turned a neighborhood eyesore into a jewel. The renovation was completed in 1992, but the building's upkeep became a financial drain and helped contribute to the near-ruin of the 77-year-old organization.
The league also owed $54,000 in payroll taxes. Henderson said that debt was resolved with help from U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who represents the area.
The league has paid off $400,000 of the $1.2 million debt it had run up in recent years, Henderson said. Creditors have forgiven an additional $350,000. The remaining $450,000 is being held in abeyance as creditors wait to see how the league fares, he said.
"A lot of the long-term vendors want to see us healthy," he said.
In addition to turning around its finances, the organization needed a chairman who could help restore its image and reputation, said Henderson. That person turned out to be Haysbert.
Henderson broached the subject to Haysbert as the two rode an elevator to a meeting of black political leaders at the Center Club. He made another pitch at a meeting of the Presidents' Roundtable, the city's pre-eminent group for black business leaders. Next, he made a personal appeal.
"I said, `Baltimore needs you. Not the Urban League. Baltimore needs you,' " Henderson said.
Haysbert said one of his first steps was to sit down with Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Haysbert said he had helped Mfume in the past and wanted advice on turning around a troubled organization.
The NAACP had been racked by scandal and crippled by debt when Mfume took over several years ago. The civil rights group has since rebounded.
Haysbert hopes for the same. He especially wants to make sure there is no repeat of its problems.
Asked about the league's restructuring, Haysbert said, "That's a polite way to say that we have some people in here now who will prevent things from happening. We're going to provide oversight."
Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council and longtime league secretary, was upbeat about the announcement. "I just hope that under a new and very well-respected chairman of the board, the Urban League will only see better days ahead," he said. "And I expect that will be the case."
Haysbert said he wants to further the league's job-training efforts and make the agency key in Baltimore's civic life. Programs at the local Urban League, one of 115 affiliates, have included AIDS education, literacy classes and mentoring for young fathers.
"The renaissance is in process. It is not in the making anymore," said Henderson. "We feel very comfortable that we're on the right track now."