NAACP might leave Baltimore

Chairman Bond pushes to move headquarters to Washington

May 06, 2006|By KELLY BREWINGTON AND JOHN FRITZE | KELLY BREWINGTON AND JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTERS

Calling the nation's capital "the center of the universe in which we work," the chairman of the NAACP said yesterday that he is pushing to relocate the headquarters of the nation's oldest civil rights organization from Northwest Baltimore to Washington.

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in an interview that although the organization has not bought property in Washington, a move is all but definite.

When the 97-year-old organization came to Baltimore in 1986 from New York City, it was greeted with fanfare from local politicians and a city parade.

"This is not something that will happen quickly, but it is something that is going to happen," said Bond, who would not offer a timetable for the move.

"It has nothing to do with the city of Baltimore. We love the city of Baltimore, except its location. It's not located in Washington, and Washington is where we need to be."

Nevertheless, Bond's determination to leave Baltimore caught city officials and NAACP stalwarts off guard.

Mayor Martin O'Malley pledged to fight to keep the NAACP in Baltimore, and others lamented that losing the organization would be a blow to city residents who take pride in having one of the most prominent organizations in civil rights in their backyard.

"We are going to do everything we can to aggressively lay a retention package on the table of the NAACP," O'Malley said, adding that he had left personal messages with Bond and Bruce S. Gordon, the NAACP's president and chief executive officer.

The mayor offered to immediately travel to New York, where Gordon lives, to discuss the options. "We're excited about laying a package on the table and really want to do everything we possibly can to keep [the NAACP in Baltimore," he said.

Bond, who lives in Washington, has made no secret over the years of his desire to move the organization closer to the center of national politics and activism. But his most recent pronouncement, reported first by American Urban Radio Networks on Thursday night, surprised even the NAACP leadership.

"Sure, when we moved to Baltimore there were some who wanted to move to Washington," said Hazel N. Dukes, a member of the organization's 64-member board and president of its New York state conference. "But I don't know, do they have a space picked out in Washington?"

O'Malley's administration, also surprised, immediately began discussions to determine what kind of incentives the city could offer in an attempt to keep the nonprofit in Baltimore.

City officials say NAACP leaders have previously expressed interest in moving elsewhere in Baltimore. M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the city would work to address the NAACP's needs.

"We're keen on keeping them," Brodie said. "We're on it."

In making their case, city leaders noted Baltimore's role in the civil rights movement and the history the city has had with the NAACP.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., whose grandfather, Clarence Mitchell Jr., was one of the NAACP's most powerful Washington lobbyists and a national figure in the movement, said losing the organization would be a huge blow.

"The NAACP has a long history in Baltimore, and it would be a shame if they would move out," said Mitchell, adding that his grandfather bought him his life membership in the organization shortly after he was born. "Then it becomes just like any other organization in Washington, D.C."

O'Malley said, "We are a city that is proud of its civil rights history and the courageous men and women who have fought to make America a more fair and just place for people of color and all Americans."

Bond said he would listen to the city's best offer. But when asked what officials could do to keep the NAACP in Baltimore, he replied, "Move Baltimore to the D.C. city limit."

Sources within the organization, who refused to be identified because they are not authorized to publicly discuss the group's plans, confirmed that the NAACP has hired a real estate agent to market the Mount Hope Drive property and identify locations for it in Washington.

Despite the group's well publicized financial challenges in recent years, Bond said, the organization has the funds to cover the higher cost of real estate in Washington. He said he had spoken with Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams within the past couple of months about the prospect of a move.

"He said, `We'd love to have you,'" Bond said.

Sharon Gang, a spokeswoman in Williams' office, would not confirm those discussions but said, "I'm certain that [the mayor] and his staff would be helpful in any way to the NAACP if they would move to the district."

Experts on civil rights said a move to Washington would give the NAACP a stronger presence and possibly greater influence on political decision-makers than if it stayed in Baltimore.

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