Secret history: Is the Charlottesville historical society a thing of the past?

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Privately, many former Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society members pin the decline of the organization on its current president, local historian and Scottsville landlord Steven Meeks. Photo by Eze Amos Privately, many former Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society members pin the decline of the organization on its current president, local historian and Scottsville landlord Steven Meeks. Photo by Eze Amos

By John Last

There’s an open secret among Charlottesville’s historians: Something is very wrong at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.

Under the near-singular control of an amateur historian, plagued by infighting and, now, facing eviction by the city, even some lifetime members are saying the 77-year-old society should meet its demise.

Conversations with more than a dozen current and former staff, volunteers and board members reveal an organization in deep dysfunction.

The ACHS keeps no current public record of board members or directors, though it is considered standard practice for charitable organizations. Paul Jones, until recently a listed director in the society’s State Corporation Commission filings, seemed unaware of any obligation to make public disclosures about the society.

None of the named current directors who responded to repeated requests could provide basic public documentation, such as the society’s articles of incorporation or bylaws. Will Lyster, a current director, says he does not have them, despite having sat on the board for more than a year. Several former directors stated they had never seen them.

Astonishingly, at the time of this writing, none of the current or previous directors could even name the other members of the board or remember the last time the board met in full. Ken Wallenborn, a current board member, says he could not disclose their names as he “did not want to step on toes.”

“They should release it, not me,” he says, declining to elaborate.

The ACHS has been the subject of renewed public scrutiny as its lease with the city comes up for review. Headquartered at 200 Second St. NE, across from Emancipation Park, the ACHS pays a reduced rent of $185 per year, representing a significant public subsidy.

But when the issue was brought before council on September 18, no informed director was present. Questions about the society’s poor documentation had to be answered by Lewis Martin, a real estate lawyer with limited knowledge of the organization.

“This is a mess, an absolute mess, and it’s been going on for some time,” said City Councilor Kathy Galvin.

Just a decade ago, the ACHS was a vibrant organization with more than 500 members, a newly renovated headquarters and a visible presence in the community. How the organization has come to its current point is a subject of much gossip in Charlottesville’s interconnected nonprofit community.

Privately, many former members pin the decline of the ACHS on its current president, local historian and Scottsville landlord Steven Meeks.

Asked for comment, Meeks said he was not answering questions and hung up.

Though the bylaws once called for a maximum term limit of six years, Meeks has been president of the society for almost a decade. After he led a campaign for the termination of former executive director Douglas Day, he also held that position until it was eliminated in 2013.

Day’s firing, say former board members, was the culmination of years of subpar fundraising and management. But it was also the fruit of months of mudslinging that saw Meeks level unsubstantiated allegations of theft against him, according to several former board members from that time.

“Doug came just short of being abused by Steve,” says former board member Don Swofford. “They just slandered him.”

Meeks took over the executive directorship on an interim basis, and was elected president later that year by a vote of the board. Though the bylaws at the time required it, Meeks did not seek a replacement executive director, although financial records suggest the society would have run a deficit had they staffed the paid position.

In 2011, discontent on the board was growing. Meeks was re-elected in a highly contentious election, in which he appeared at the vote with his personal attorney, Maynard Sipe, and began to rule critics out of order, according to Swofford and Bobby Montgomery, another former director and Meeks’ opponent at the time.

“Steve was inventing his own parliamentary law,” says Swofford.

Records show for the final vote, Sipe ruled out a secret ballot, and several members abstained. Sipe then became a regular fixture at board discussions, despite never holding a formal position at the society, according to meeting minutes.

In response, ACHS secretary Jarrett Millard suggested multiple amendments to the bylaws to make the president’s role more accountable. But by the end of the year, the amendments had not been passed, and the majority of the board had resigned.

By 2013, the situation had deteriorated further. A letter to the board signed by eight former members, including Millard, Swofford and Montgomery, detailed several violations of the bylaws, including the appointment of directors without a vote of the membership.

“We are writing to you today…because of our desperate concern,” reads the letter.

In response, the board changed the bylaws to remove term limits and obligations to consult with members.

In conversations with former directors, none doubt Meeks’ deep commitment to history, and many are grateful for his stewardship in returning the society to profitability after its financial reserve was shrunk by half in the 2008 recession.

“At that time, we needed the strong hand of a rigid autocratic-type leadership to bring us back from the brink of collapse,” wrote Swofford in his 2011 resignation letter. “You have taken the Society through tumultuous waters, and you have done a very good job. Now you need to step aside.”

Since that time, the society has become more insular. Membership has dropped by more than 50 percent, and fewer meetings are held.

A public spat over access to Ku Klux Klan robes with UVA professor Jalane Schmidt, together with the society’s refusal to disclose the donor of the robes, set it at odds with Charlottesville’s increasingly progressive historical mainstream.

This perception was cemented by the organization’s complete silence on the August 12 events, despite them taking place on its literal doorstep.

“I met and talked with black people in Charlottesville who said they would never darken the door [of the ACHS],” says Day, the former executive director, “because they knew what it stood for.”

Housed in a former whites-only children’s library, it has at times tried to shake its image as an old, white man’s club with exhibits on African-American history.

But in a statement to City Council, local historian Genevieve Keller said the society’s relationship with the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center had been “actually antagonistic.” Keller and the Jefferson Center did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s a shame that we basically have a black historical society and a white historical society, but that’s the way it’s played out,” says Day.

There may be some substantial change coming. In agreeing to a conditional six-month extension of the society’s lease, city councilors inserted a requirement that one-third of the board be appointed by the city.

In addition to requirements to increase transparency and accountability that were not met in the 2013 lease, the society must demonstrate “racial and ethnic diversity” in staffing.

Currently, there is one black member of the board—local Realtor Angus Arrington, appointed in 2014.

Society members see this fight as personal.

“I think that these are bitter people,” says Wallenborn.

“I think some of the city councilors have a personal grievance,” says Jones. “None of the City Council are even members.”

“I don’t want it to die,” says City Councilor Kristin Szakos. “But I’m not the one killing it.”

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