Museum Finds Itself In Middle Of Dispute

Wax Statues Of Sorority Figures At Heart Of Lawsuit

August 01, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Two wax statues at the heart of a dispute swirling through the nation's oldest African-American sorority are sitting in a Baltimore museum - and they apparently cost nowhere near as much as the outlandish sums cited by critics alleging malfeasance by organization leaders.

Joanne M. Martin, co-founder and CEO of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, seemed perplexed yesterday at the attention the museum has gotten in the wake of a lawsuit filed by members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, America's first black sorority and one of its most prominent, against the current president. Among the charges: that Barbara McKinzie spent $900,000 on wax statues of herself and the sorority's first president, Nellie Quander, for display at the North Avenue museum.

"I dismissed the whole thing at first, it seemed so ridiculous," Martin said in an interview. "Then people started calling to say they saw me in the Chicago Tribune, in the Chicago Sun-Times, in other places. This story has taken on a life of its own."

Martin acknowledged that the museum did create the statues. The sorority paid $22,500 apiece for the works, she said, a discount from the standard cost of $25,000.

What struck Martin as silly was that the purchase has been portrayed as a frivolous or self-serving expense, lumped in with other allegations in the lawsuit, including accusations that McKinzie, who works out of AKA's Chicago headquarters, used a sorority credit card to buy thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry, lingerie, designer clothes and other extravagances for herself.

McKinzie has called the allegations "malicious" and meritless.

To Martin, it made perfect sense for AKA to commission the statues and the museum to display them. Last year was the sorority's 100th anniversary, and officials from the Chicago office - not McKinzie, she said - approached her months ago with the idea of celebrating "the president who started them off on this historic journey of service [Quander] and the president seeing them into their second century."

That, she said, fits the mission of the museum, which has long showcased historically black sororities, fraternities and social clubs as key forces in African-American history. The museum has had statues of former AKA leaders since 1995.

The lawsuit, filed last month in Washington court, alleges the statues cost $900,000, a figure repeated by many news outlets. Martin said the statues cost about 5 percent of that, or $45,000.

"My theory is, somebody got confused, doubled the wrong figure, and got a decimal point in the wrong place," she said.

Edward Gray, the plaintiffs' lawyer, could not be reached for comment.

Angela Celestine Gibson, president of the sorority's Epsilon Omega chapter based in Baltimore, said she only recently learned the full nature of the charges against McKinzie, and would refrain from comment at least until the matter is resolved.

Jon Wilson, a museum spokesman, said adjustments are currently being made to the McKinzie statue; both figures will be on display within the next few weeks.

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