The irony was lost on no one, least of all Dr. Helena Hicks.
“Those white people who were with me suddenly got a taste of what it was like to be barred from a public building,” she says. “They got a rude awakening. Especially from a bunch of black guards.”
Hicks, a longtime civil rights figure best known for a 1955 sit-in at the former Read’s Drug Store, was coming to take her place on a panel discussion at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African-American History on Oct. 2 to mark the opening of “Struggle: Portraits of Civil Rights and Black Power,” an exhibit of photographic portraits—including one of Hicks—by City Paper photo editor J.M. Giordano.
Earlier that day she had argued with the museum’s executive director, A. Skipp Sanders, and now the employees of a private security company were telling her she could not come into the building.
Hicks and her friends left quietly.
The Baltimore Sun broke the story on Oct. 8, a week after the event, prompting a press conference at the museum in which Sanders said he bears Hicks “no ill will” but insisted he had to keep her out in order to maintain decorum. The Sun followed with a harsh editorial saying Sanders had screwed up.
The Hicks affair may cause the museum more trouble than is first apparent, because the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African-American History is “an instrumentality of the state,” getting more than half its operating budget from taxpayers.
And Hicks is no stranger to politics—or to politicians. “I know Senator [Barbara] Mikulski is very unhappy and she has indicated that,” Hicks, who worked for the city and state for four decades, says.
The Lewis museum (and its director, who formerly served for three decades as a high-level state education administrator) can’t afford to alienate too many politicians. For years the museum fell short as attendance dipped. In 2012 and 2013 the shortfalls exceeded $400,000, to be made up by taxpayers. Staff positions were left unfilled as the remaining staff worked to keep the museum operating and plan for improvement. A consultant was brought in last year to help Sanders and his staff create a marketing and fundraising plan so the museum could finally begin to match the $2 million the state gives it each year.
In this context came J.M. Giordano with a portrait project. Aiming to honor the aging participants in the civil rights and black power movements, he offered his photographs under the working title, “Giants: Portraits of the Civil Rights Era.”
He says he was soon schooled by W. Paul Coates, who sits on the museum’s board. “He said, look, you can’t lump together . . . people in these two movements,” Giordano says. “And he said you can’t call anyone ‘Giant.’ All the giants are dead.”
Giordano changed the title to “Struggle: Portraits of Civil Rights and Black Power” and took pictures of whoever he could get access to in his spare time while working for this newspaper. The project is ongoing.
The museum show was planned about six months ago, and as the opening date approached some of the people photographed were asked to come and speak. Hicks says she was initially asked to give a short speech, but soon after that Sanders called back to say it would be a panel discussion. This was about a week before the show opened.
It was the inclusion on the panel of a person who had once advocated violence that caused Hicks to protest.
Among the panelists was Marshall “Eddie” Conway, a Black Panther Party member who served almost 44 years in prison for the murder of a Baltimore Police officer. Conway has always insisted he was railroaded, and many believe him. He spent much of his time in prison counseling other inmates and was released this spring after a court ruling freed hundreds of convicts because of improper jury instructions. Conway’s sentence was changed from life to time served plus probation, but his conviction still stands.
Hicks says she found out who Conway was only the day before the event. “He was convicted of a serious offense . . . being part of a group that killed a police officer,” she says.
She did not want Conway on the same panel with nonviolent civil rights activists such as herself, Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, and the photographer Robert Houston. It’s not just because she is offended by violence, she says, but also because, as an educator, she thinks presenting the nonviolent civil rights movement alongside the Black Panthers is more suited to a graduate seminar than a forum that children might attend.
“In my classroom, fine,” she says. “But it’s not a subject matter for the public at large—not unless you spend a lot of time on presentation.”
Sanders says Hicks was adamant that Conway be removed from the panel and his photo be removed from the exhibit. He says staff called her to explain things and that Hicks was “aggressive and even a bit threatening.” Sanders, a lifelong Baltimorean who once considered the priesthood and in 2000 was in the running for the job of Baltimore City School CEO, declined to be specific about the threat.
Hicks says she never asked that Conway be removed, only that he be separated from her on the panel. “I said where is his picture hanging?” she says. “I don’t want his picture hanging near mine. I would rather have no picture at all than have people confused by seeing ours together.”
Sanders, who has never met Hicks and said he only knew her by her reputation, which he knew to be good, says he called Hicks himself, told her that Conway’s participation in the event was non-negotiable, and turned the discussion to Hicks’ behavior. “She was again quite aggressive and disparaging,” Sanders says. “I told her that if she could not behave in a courteous and respectful manner then I would have to disinvite her from the panel.”
In a 2000 Sun profile, people who worked with Sanders in his education capacity called him “a consummate diplomat” with “incredible human relations skills.” His father was a police officer.
“It was a very heated discussion on the telephone,” Hicks says. “He said ‘I want you to make sure there aren’t any problems and that you will act like a lady.’ I said that’s offensive. I’ve always been a lady. I’m not interested in [violence]. I said that’s defamation of my character . . . I’m not one of those ladies who slides down a pole three blocks away on Baltimore Street. I said I’m a different kind of lady. I’m a true lady.”
Sanders says he decided to keep Hicks out because he thought she would ruin the panel discussion in front of hundreds of people, “many of which were first-time visitors to the museum.” He says the panel, with the four remaining panelists (including Giordano), put on a good show. “Mr. Conway conducted himself as an absolute gentleman. It was a delightful evening. Everything you would want it to be.”
Conway says he does not want to talk about what happened. He did say he was not told anything about why Hicks was not present. Trumpauer Mulholland says she wasn’t either, adding that, like Hicks, she received her invitation to serve as a panelist fairly late in the game. “I assumed they already had the panel pretty well organized,” she says in a phone interview. “The museum people were all very nice to me. It [the panel and exhibit] may have been a sort of last-minute fill-in-the-blank thing.”
Sanders is very sure that he clearly told Hicks that she was no longer invited to the panel. Hicks says she was not aware that she was disinvited.
“I said I’m coming,” Hicks says. “I’m telling you that I will have to talk about non violence. If you want to put Mr. Conway on the other end of the table, that’s fine . . . I will only talk about nonviolence.”
Hicks arrived at the museum and met her son there, who she says surprised her by coming up from Montgomery County. There they were met by security, who told Hicks’ son that she would have to leave, and she did.
Other panelists were not told of the incident or its backstory, Sanders says, to spare Hicks embarrassment. “I find it most uncomfortable that something I tried to handle discretely and privately became public,” he says.
But Giordano says Asantewa Boakyewa, the associate curator of exhibitions, told him that Hicks was barred because she threatened the staff with “physical violence.” In the excitement of last-minute preparations for the panel and the opening of his first museum show, Giordano says the statement’s significance flew right past him. “I didn’t have my journalism cap on,” he says.
The claim that she threatened violence insults Hicks. “I was never even a spanking parent,” she says.
But Hicks says she plans no further action. “No, I’m not suing the state over this,” she says. “This is clear to me that it was a breakdown in communication. When I told [the museum’s] board members they hadn’t heard anything about it.”