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Unrest at Boston’s Museum of African American History over leadership change

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The news, delivered in a carefully crafted statement, came as a shock to donors, advisers and former employees of the Museum of African American History, a Beacon Hill institution that houses the nation’s oldest black church.

After two successful years at the helm of the museum, Leon Wilson – a respected former financial executive and leader of a non-profit organization – was absent. Exactly why, or who might succeed him, was unclear.

“Leon Wilson stepped down from his role at the Museum of African American History earlier this month, and the board thanks him for his contributions over the past two years,” said a statement provided to The Globe on May 24 by the president of the counsel Sylvia Stevens-Edouard. and also distributed to some of the museum advisers and other supporters. The statement included a quote attributed to Wilson that read, in part, “As I move on to other opportunities, I have enjoyed my tenure as President and CEO of [the Museum of African American History] and wish MAAH the best for the future.

The statement appeared to describe an amicable parting after a fruitful, albeit somewhat in short, cooperation. But some museum supporters believed there was more to the story, an unexplained falling out between Wilson and the museum’s board that led to acrimony and shifting blame within the tight-knit community of the museum supporters. A month after Wilson’s departure, few seem to know the full story and even fewer are willing to talk about it publicly.

“The notification you sent to the advisory board may lead to the conclusion that Leon Wilson initiated his departure from the museum,” Vivian Beard, former Berklee College administrator and longtime museum supporter, wrote to board chair Sylvia Stevens. -Edouard in an email obtained by the Globe, one of several messages sent to Stevens-Edouard and other board members in late May about Wilson’s departure. “That impression would be inaccurate.”

Acting Mayor Kim Janey and Leon Wilson, President and CEO of the Museum of African American History, are seen during an event at the Museum of African American History in Boston in July 2021. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

Founded in 1968, the Museum of African American History, which has campuses in Beacon Hill and Nantucket, has become a foundational institution for African American history, culture, and philanthropy in Massachusetts. He was at the center of efforts to highlight Martin Luther King Jr.’s deep ties to Boston, and when Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s administration hosted an event last year touting the accomplishments of City Hall, the former building of the church was chosen as the venue.

But the museum’s financial situation had deteriorated in recent years. Between 2014 and 2019, its net assets fell from $14 million to just over $11 million, while a budget surplus of around $500,000 in 2014 turned into a deficit of more than $700,000, according to tax returns. In his two years on the job, Wilson, a longtime financial executive who became the museum’s president and CEO in early 2020, seemed to have righted the ship. From his first year at the helm, the museum’s net assets stabilized and its deficit fell below the $15,000 mark.

“Leon did his job,” Stevens-Edouard told Boston University alumni magazine for a article about Wilson published in January. “The museum is on the right track, developing new and deeper relationships with funders, area colleges and universities, and community stakeholders. Under his direction, the museum proudly advances.

But by the spring, Wilson’s relationship with the board had broken down, according to additional emails between board members and museum supporters obtained by the Globe. Upon his departure from the museum, Wilson requested a hearing from the museum’s board of trustees, Beard wrote in his email. But Wilson never had a chance to speak directly with the board, according to his attorney, Joseph Feaster.

The terms of Wilson’s separation from the museum, as well as the wording of the May 24 statement, were worked out through negotiations between Feaster and a lawyer for the museum, Feaster said.

Stevens-Edouard, executive at Liberty Mutual, did not respond to questions about Wilson’s departure. Feaster said Wilson was unavailable for an interview and declined to explain why Wilson and the museum parted ways.

In his email at Stevens-Edouard, Beard, who has known Wilson for decades, according to Feaster, maintained that Wilson was fired. “Leon did not leave voluntarily,” she wrote. “He was fired at very short notice.” In response, other museum supporters wrote that Wilson’s departure was “brutal” and misguided. Donna Gittens, founder and CEO of More Advertising, who was a member of the museum’s leadership advisory panel in 2021, expressed surprise at the leadership change, saying the museum had made “steady progress” during Wilson’s tenure. .

Gittens, Beard and current board members did not respond to requests for comment. Only one museum supporter, Paul Karoff, a board member for 30 years until December, would speak in the filing, saying, “I am advised that the statement you and I saw was released in coordination with Leon and both parties agree that this is what will be said at this topic.”

On Thursday, the museum’s board said it had selected a search firm to help hire a new CEO.

Feaster, Wilson’s attorney, said that prior to his departure, Wilson worked for the museum full-time and remained actively engaged in the affairs of the organization, as well as his other commitments, such as running OneUnited. Bank.

“Leon is like me,” he said. “We only retire when the good Lord calls us home.”


Mike Damiano can be contacted at [email protected]