You never know what you’ll stumble across at an arts gathering in Mobile. I guess in a town where there seems to be an insatiable craving for intrigue and gossip, drama can be stirred in any way possible.
Word raced through the throng at the Oct. 17 Arts Throwdown fundraiser for the Mobile Arts Council that turmoil was afoot in Oakleigh. Apparently, the Historic Mobile Preservation Society board of directors decided to deliver walking papers to Executive Director Rhonda Davis, who had held the position since September 2010.
Scuttlebutt was long on innuendo and short on official statements: there were personality conflicts between Davis and key officers; it was heightened during an imbroglio over a picture of Scarlett O’ Hara on Davis’ personal Facebook page; board meetings had turned acrimonious and lengthy, Davis was given no warning but merely a pink slip.
“On Oct. 10, 2013 the board of directors of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society released me of my duties as executive director of the organization,” a statement from Davis later read. “ The reason given to me was “’the vision of the board of directors and your (my) vision were different.’”
HMPS Board President Michon Trent echoed the same in statements with media. Artifice’s attempts to reach Trent for further elaboration were unsuccessful at the time this column was filed.
Davis was unabashed about her accomplishments. She said in three years’ time she tripled membership, began a new branding campaign for both HMPS and the Oakleigh House and Museum and created educational programs and historic site field trips for members.
“In addition, I raised $108,000 in grants that enabled HMPS to install a new walkway system at Oakleigh and resurface the parking lots, develop a new signage system for the grounds, redesign the websites, and begin the process of organizing the Minnie Mitchell Archives,” Davis wrote.
She said she was most proud of raising the $225,000 for the Cook’s House Restoration Project, finishing the capital campaign just this September. The restoration is currently under way and when open in the winter will be Mobile’s first African-American period house museum dedicated to the post-Emancipation life experience.
“I made a promise to Dora Finley, before her untimely death, that I would raise the money to make this project happen,” Davis said. “I am thrilled that I was able to complete the capital campaign, raising $225,000, before being fired. I was able to keep my commitment to Dora. This means more to me than words can express”
The former HMPS director feels the Cook’s House is monumental and will change the way historic sites and involvement with them continues in Mobile. She didn’t use the word “inclusive,” but it seemed at the heart of her statements.
Davis wouldn’t give details about any clashes between she and the board. She did acknowledge a departure contract was signed with clauses prohibiting public negative discussion from either her or the current HMPS leadership.
Apparently, two homes have withdrawn from the Historic Homes Tour scheduled for March 2014 and five of the board’s directors left the slate since September. One of those directors, Bunky Ralph, was a bit more forthcoming about the situation.
“I thought the way it was handled was very unprofessional,” Ralph said. “If you have a problem, what you do is tell someone ‘these are the things that need to change and you have until then to get it done.’”
Ralph pointed to the introduction of new officers in early summer of 2013 as the beginning of the end for Davis. According to a posting on the HMPS Facebook page dated May 9, 2013, the new officers were President Michon Trent, Vice President Hodge Alves and Treasurer Allan Gustin. The HMPS website also lists Secretary Cart Blackwell among the executive committee.
“When the new leadership for the board came in this past June, we started having longer and more meetings,” Ralph said. “We’d have two-hour board meetings followed by executive committee meetings, which is unusual because executive committee meetings are normally when something dire is going on. That was when all the complaining about Rhonda started.”
Ralph was at a loss to put her finger on an exact cause for Davis’ termination, as she listed many of the same achievements Davis did in her statement. She particularly pointed to grants for the archive, increased Oakleigh attendance and sales, a greater online presence and visibility in the community.
No one provided any illumination on the rumored fuss over Ms. O’ Hara.
For the present, HMPS has announced no further plans. A part-time employee has been hired to answer phones and other duties at Oakleigh.
Davis continues with her work in historic efforts. “I’m on the Alabama Board of Trusts; I’m working on the Barton Foundation and helping to create a period house guide for the entire state,” she said. Davis also mentioned efforts aimed at using 2014 to celebrate the end of the War of 1812 and “200 years of peace and freedom with Great Britain.”
Despite all that’s transpired, Davis seems resolved to emerge on the better side of things. “I would like to thank the community for supporting the Historic Mobile Preservation Society,” she concluded. “It was a pleasure to serve the HMPS members and the community.”