The Columbus Black History Museum and Archives has been struggling to survive, but there’s confusion swirling around the museum’s financial problems.
On Feb. 13, the museum’s founder and former director, Johnnie Warner, posted on his Facebook page: “The Columbus Black History Museum and Archives is closed due to misuse of funding. For more information, please call 706-575-3646.”
When contacted by the Ledger-Enquirer, Warner said the museum had received a $7,500 donation from the Black History Observance Committee, led by Congressman Sanford Bishop Jr. in October. In December, he received a text message from the museum’s landlord that the rent check had bounced because of insufficient funds. That’s when he discovered that the current director, David Gillarm, had transferred the funds from a Wells Fargo bank account to a new account at Columbus Bank and Trust, Warner said.
Warner said the power, cable and other utilities have been shut off, and the museum is currently being evicted by its landlord, Renovated Properties. He said he tried contacting Gillarm about the problems, but Gillarm didn’t return his calls.
“He’s not paying the bills and he’s got the money,” Warner said earlier this week. “ ... He isn’t doing things that we had talked about.”
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Gillarm denied any misappropriation of funds. On Thursday, he provided a CB&T receipt, which showed a balance of $7, 617.97 in the account. He said $3,629.78 of that money was from the funds donated by the Black History Observance Committee, and he provided a breakdown of how the money was spent. The expenses included back rent, an old electric bill and reimbursement to Warner for U-Haul and storage of items, according to the information provided.
“Johnnie has no clue about what’s coming into the museum because he’s not on any of the accounts,” Gillarm said.
Gillarm said he transferred the funds to CB&T because that’s where he personally banks. He said he also wanted to distance the finances from Warner, who he believes misused funds in the past. He said he donated $500 to the museum on behalf of the 4th Masonic District Prince Hall Affiliate while Warner was still director. The money was supposed to be used for a historical monument at Porterdale Cemetery, but the project never materialized. He emailed screenshots of a Facebook conversation that he and Warner had about the donation.
In August 2015, the museum received $5,000 from the Black History Observance Committee, Gillarm said. But when he took over the museum in December of that year, Warner informed him that the organization was behind on the electric, phone, Internet and cable bills.
“The museum’s bills only came up to around $650-$700 per month,” he wrote in an email. “There should have been a minimum of around $2,800.”
He said there were several withdrawals between when he started on Dec. 20 and when his name was added to the account on Dec. 22.
“The balance at the time that I gained control of that account was $2,” he said. “I didn’t know at the time that there was a service fee. On Dec. 31, there was a $5 service fee, so the balance went to a negative $3. That’s how I started off with the museum.
“If I had told anybody this, it would have been bad,” he said. “People already have a hard time donating as it is. ... It would have been bad for the overall image of the museum.”
Gillarm said he has struggled to maintain the museum, and almost had to close it down a few months ago. The community responded to news reports about the lack of finances, which kept it open a little longer. He and Warner eventually closed the museum temporarily for renovations.
During that time, he discovered that the building has extensive termite and mold damage, he said. So he has refused to pay rent since December. The landlord, Renovated Properties, recently served him with an eviction notice.
Gillarm said the bounced check that Warner referred to occurred when he was away.
“It was a mistake on my end,” he said. “ I was out of town. The rent was due and I sent it in. It was out of my personal account. When I got notified about it, I told them I would handle it when I got back in town, which I did.”
Warner resigned as director of the museum in 2015, saying there had been a lack of community support and that his wife had lost her job due to health problems. These days, he works at the Kia plant in West Point seven days a week, he said recently.
Gillarm, grand historian for the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia, has been running the museum in his absence. But Warner remains the agent registered with the state and is still responsible for taxes, the two men said.
Gillarm said Warner is no longer executive director, and doesn’t have the authority to close the museum. He said he hopes to move the artifacts and archives into the Spencer House, and continue serving the community from there. Some of the items are in Warner’s possession, but the museum will remain open, he said.
“The museum will relocate; that building is done,” he said. “I haven’t decided if the name is going to stay the same or not. It may slightly change.”
Warner disputes Gillarm’s version of the story and denies misusing any funds.
Warner said he plans to open a new museum called the Hammurabi Black History and Research Institute, which will focus on black history from a global perspective. He said the Columbus Black Museum’s reputation has been tarnished by recent events, and he just wants to start all over.
“I’m so heartbroken now that it will be hard for me to trust anybody with the black history artifacts I have, the documents, even the funding,” he said of the situation. “I’m sorry to feel this way. But I must make an apology to all our contributors who donated to this museum. I apologize for this unfortunate situation.”