Archive for Friday, September 12, 2003

Federal officials beseech Watkins board to accept grant

September 12, 2003


Federal officials came to Lawrence on Thursday, begging a financially strapped organization to accept a $20,470 check.

But leaders of the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass., still aren't sure they can accept.

"We have a lot of problems involved in seeing it go forward," said Faye Watson, a board member for the Douglas County Historical Society, which runs the museum.

The two sides sat down for a meeting Thursday afternoon at the museum, in hopes of finding a middle ground for creating an exhibit to celebrate the area's role in the Underground Railroad, an informal but effective network to freedom for anywhere from 40,000 to 400,000 slaves leading up to the Civil War.

The Watkins board, which more than a year ago agreed to support seeking the grant, twice earlier this year voted to reject the grant from the National Parks Service.

Now parks officials are trying to convince Watkins leaders to change their minds again. If Watkins doesn't accept the grant -- one of 14 approved nationally through a $500,000 Network to Freedom program -- it would go to waste.

Or close to it.

"We cannot take the money back," said Diane Miller, national coordinator for the program, to 14 society board members. "We cannot pass it along to another project. If we don't use it, it goes back into the general treasury, where it whittles down a little of that kazillion-dollar deficit -- which has some merit, I guess, but I'd like to see it kept in this arena."

Hurdles remain

Using the money would require society officials to face some difficult issues:

  • Money. It takes money to spend money, in this case, and board members fear that they wouldn't be able to come up with the $20,470 "match" required to use the federal money. The society already barely has enough money to run its own museum, much less create a new exhibit.
  • Form. The grant calls for a variety of components, the most prominent being a mural by artist Wayne Wildcat. But some board members have questioned the appropriateness of such a mural, especially as the museum seeks to coordinate its exhibits. Board members could change the goal of the grant, provided it contains some for public art -- paintings, sculpture or anything else. "Then we'd just have to define art," said Stan Hernly, a board member, drawing chuckles from around the table.
  • Personnel. The person who researched and filled out the paperwork for the grant -- Judy Sweets -- used to be the museum's archivist, but the museum's director, Rebecca Phipps, fired her last month for failing to perform her job duties. Sweets, in return, filed a complaint with the Kansas Human Relations Commission, accusing the society of discriminating against her because of her age and in retaliation for her complaints that she didn't get the director's job when Phipps was hired earlier this year.

For her part, Sweets said she would hold no grudge against the museum or its leaders -- as long as they would recommit to the grant as originally written.

Commitment remains

"I'd be willing to work with them," Sweets said, who would work as a researcher and possibly as grant administrator. "I'm very committed to telling this story and I think we can do it."

Wayne Wildcat said it would be "stealing" his idea if Watkins decided to spend the money on another Underground Railroad art project.

His wife, Tolly Wildcat, also has spent her own time researching the roles of area sites in the Underground Railroad.

"We'd be brokenhearted," she said. "We have a lot of time and emotions involved in this project."

Board members have until the end of the month to think about the issues. They are scheduled to decide whether to accept the money -- and, if so, for what project -- during their next board meeting, set for 3 p.m. Sept. 25.

If they don't have a decision to Hill's office by the end of the month, the money's gone.

James Hill, the network's Midwest regional coordinator, said abandoning the grant would prompt the National Parks Service to consider removing Watkins Museum from national Network to Freedom, a growing registry of 130 sites considered vital to telling the story of the Underground Railroad.

"This has been a saga and a comedy of errors in some ways," Hill said. "But we are willing to see this project go forward in some way, shape or form."

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