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Board locked out after being told to rent space in civil rights museum they helped create

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Meetings of the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex board of directors are like those of most other nonprofits.

They are generally serious; there is sometimes laughter, sometimes contention. Tedious administrative tasks, celebrations of wins. Nail-biting discussions of finances. What makes them unique is the board’s mission: to preserve the legacy of Brevard County’s own Black civil rights pioneers and the cultural site that bears their names.

The Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Memorial Park and Museum was built in collaboration with the county in 2003 to honor Harry T. Moore’s tireless efforts toward racial equality, decades before Brown v. Board of Education. The facility sits on a 12-acre plot in Mims where the Moores’ home stood before the 1951 bombing that took their lives.

Authorities have long believed Florida members of the Ku Klux Klan were behind the assassination, but the crime was never solved.

For nearly 20 years, the county-owned facility dedicated to the lives and deaths of the Moores has been the board’s crowning achievement and its base of operations. Until March, that is, when county officials told the all-volunteer board it would have to start paying for meeting space in the very building it helped bring to life.

History:Harry T. Moore helped thousands of Black people register to vote. It led to his assassination on Christmas night

Board President Bill Gary said he isn’t sure exactly when or why relations with the county began to go south. Increasingly burdensome demands from the county’s Parks and Recreation department led the board to dispute its contract late last year, he said. Then, the contract expired amid renegotiations in January.

Now it seems like things have never been worse. That became clear last week, when Gary said he discovered his key to the property no longer worked.

Bill Gary, president of the board of directors for the Moore Cultural Complex, in the gift shop at he Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex in Mims. Relations have deteriorated between the board and Brevard County Parks and Recreation.(Credit: MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY)

The county changed the locks to prevent “unauthorized access to the facility,” a county spokesman said.

“We provide keys to user groups that have a permit or contract with the (Parks and Recreation) Department,” Don Walker, Brevard County communications director, wrote in an email. “The County does not have a contract or agreement with the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex, Inc.”

He gave a similar response when asked about the reason the county was charging the board for the room they had long used for free: “If the County does not have an agreement with a person(s), group(s) or organization(s), they would be required to pay a rental fee,” he wrote.

County officials haven’t been keen to tell their side of the story. Interview requests have been declined. Answers to questions sent by FLORIDA TODAY were terse and legalistic, emphasizing policy and contract language they say is consistent with Parks and Recreation demands on all outside groups.

Frustrated board members said they don’t understand why they are being treated like strangers after a fruitful, decades-long partnership.

The sides are working toward a resolution; a contract work session is scheduled for later this month. But amid it all, the future of the group entrusted by the Moore family itself with the legacy of Harry and Harriette Moore — long unsung, even in their home county — could hang in the balance.

“The worst scenario is that the board dissolves, and there is no board anymore,” Gary said. “I think the legacy would be severely impacted in terms of educating the general public about the Moores.”

Who were the Moores?Brevard civil rights martyrs finally having their moment 70 years after their murder

Locked out

On June 1, standing behind the counter of the Moore Center giftshop, Bill Gary was hopping mad.

“This was a damn move to keep us from coming out here without getting permission. They told us we couldn’t have our meetings here without paying a rental fee. Somebody thought we would come out here anyway,” he said.

A tour group soon scheduled to arrive had pre-ordered T-shirts and Gary had to be there personally to deliver them. That’s when he found out the locks had been changed. He had gotten no notice, he said. With the contract expired, he was not even sure he’s allowed to be there now.

“That’s a good question,” he said.

Facility staff, who are employed by the county, can have nothing to do with the gift shop — one of many frustrating quirks of the board’s contract that Gary said led them to request changes in November.

Emails provided by the county show that Gary promised to deliver a list of proposed changes later that month, less than 60 days before the contract was set to run out, but that never happened. The contract granting the board use of the facility ended January 8.

There were many reasons he wasn’t able to get them the list in time, Gary said. Among them, funding was tight and the board had trouble finding a lawyer who would review their requests for free.

There was also frequent travel for his own civil rights and social justice work — often to give talks and interviews on the Moores — which earned Gary a nomination for an award from the National Education and Empowerment Coalition at its annual civil rights conference in Tallahassee this month.

He didn’t deny the board’s part in the standoff. Still, the coldness of the county’s sudden acts of leverage felt like a slap in the face.

It wasn’t fair to the small group of volunteers, many older and retired, who have dedicated their money, time and years of effort to help make the center — and its mission to honor the Moores — a success, he said.

“Why would we pay to rent that meeting room there when we feel responsible for bringing hundreds of people here to begin with?” Gary says.

“We got the money for the replica house,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder. “That gazebo out there, which they’ve had about 15 or 16 weddings out there, which Parks and Rec charges those folks for that. We got the money to build that. We don’t get anything from that. The pavilion — family reunions, church groups come over to use that, Parks and Rec charges them to use that too.

“If we hadn’t have got up and pursued legislative funding for that, it wouldn’t be there.”

Justice at last:Brevard School Board acknowledges unjust firing of civil rights leaders

A strained relationship

Relations between the county and the board — or at least Gary’s perception of them — haven’t been great for some time. The county has toed the line in its obligations, but according to Gary, in recent years hasn’t seemed especially invested in the flourishing of the Moore Center, its staff or its executive board.

Basic security upgrades in the wake of a string of reported threats in 2020 and 2021 took nearly a year to complete and in some cases were poorly implemented, including the installation of new cameras that Gary said initially didn’t work.

The county has been unable or unwilling to come up with money to attract and retain another fulltime employee at the center, he said. It has only two on staff, despite hosting museum tours each year for hundreds of Brevard County students and other visitors. Board members come in during their free time to fill the gap, Gary said.

Harry and Harriette V. Moore

It has also been reluctant to sign off on or has outright canceled board-sponsored activities, in line with the racial justice efforts of the Moores but which could have proven politically unpopular in conservative Brevard.

That included a presentation on critical race theory last year, which board members moved to a Titusville country club after officials declined to allow it on county property, and a canceled panel on hate speech and microaggressions in 2020.

Walker defended the refusals, saying Parks and Recreation officials decided the programs weren’t in keeping with the mission of the Moore Center.

Gary noted the department has hosted an annual collectible car show at the property for the last four years.

“Now you tell me: what does that have to do with the Moores?” he said.

Increasingly, the board has taken its programs off campus. Since March, the board has held meetings at the Catherine Schweinsberg Rood Central Library in Cocoa, where they also hosted a panel discussion on race relations in January.

Deborah Colding from Washington D.C. was visiting the museum with her cousins. They said their grandfather was first cousin to Harriette Moore. The Harry T. and Harriet V. Moore Cultural Center in Mims is having some conflicts with Brevard County Parks and Recreation.

The library, also run by the county, has neither charged for the meeting space nor required the board to buy insurance for the event, Gary said, another sticking point in the contract he said Parks and Recreation has been pressing lately.

The provision is an established policy passed by the Brevard County Commission, Walker said, requiring groups to purchase a $1 million insurance policy for events hosted on Parks and Recreation property.

But Gary said the county’s recent no-tolerance approach to enforcement was new, and yet another stumbling block for the board at a time when obstacles conspicuously seem to be piling up.

“I think the relationship is a little strained at this point, and I don’t know why,” Gary said, with a shake of his head.

More:Murky 70-year-old details could hinder reinstatement of slain civil rights pioneers

‘Maybe I’m just paranoid’

It hasn’t always been that way. Jack Masson, the former Parks and Recreation director who retired in 2017, said the department and the board got along well while he was with the county.

“We always had a great working relationship,” Masson said, adding the department worked closely with the board and calling Gary the “right arm” of the partnership. He declined to speculate on what may have changed.

Other board members have noticed a shift in dynamics in recent years. Joyce Aron, who said she’s been on the board since 2005, said she feels like communication with the county has become remarkably impersonal.

“This is just my opinion: there is some kind of undercurrent here. There is someone that has some kind of resentment about this board,” she said. “I don’t know what the whole story is, but to me, with all the things this board and this building do, it feels like — well, I’ll just say sabotage.”

More:‘Forgotten’ Brevard civil rights heroes endure in planned film by Mario Van Peebles

The affair comes at a time when the teaching of Black history has been subject to increasing restrictions across the state.

Bills like the “Stop WOKE Act,” heralded by supporters as a blow to the “indoctrination” of students, have made it more difficult to teach concepts like systemic racism and the lasting impacts of slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws.

Another recent law prohibits state colleges from spending money on programs to increase diversity, equity and inclusion. In January, the governor banned an African American studies course from the state’s Advanced Placement curriculum, decrying the class as “woke” and “significantly lacking” educational value.

The moves led the NAACP last month to issue a “formal travel advisory” for the state, writing that Florida had become “openly hostile” toward Black people, people of color and LGTBQ+ people.

“I’ve been thinking, this atmosphere that’s been going on — my opinion — with all this ‘woke’ crap, which is not crap, I think there’s an agenda going on,” Aron said. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m just paranoid.”

Walker said there was no connection between what may be happening at the state level and the situation with the Moore Center, calling any notion to that effect “far-fetched” and “false.”

Carshonda Wright, cultural center leader, talks about the Civil Rights movement and the Moores.  8th grade students from Hoover Middle School in Indialantic toured the Harry T. and Harriet B. Moore Memorial Park and Museum recently to learn about the Moores and the Civil Rights movement from 1860-1964.

Coming to terms

Gary dismissed the idea that there was anything more to the situation than a clash of personalities between the board and Parks and Recreation leaders.

He just doesn’t understand why the county seems reluctant to acknowledge the value the board has brought to the facility over the years, he said.

“I want Parks and Rec to be a partner with us in real terms,” Gary said.

A meeting to discuss the contract with county officials is scheduled for June 15. He was hopeful they could agree on reasonable terms. The board will continue to meet at the library or at board members’ homes in the meantime, Gary said.

Walker said the county would continue to work toward reaching an agreement with the Moore Complex board.

Eric Rogers is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Rogers at 321-242-3717 or esrogers@floridatoday.com.

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