Coalition, Friends Dissatisfied With Uses Process for Selling Harriet Tubman House

Last fall, a group of longtime South End service providers – referred to loosely as the ‘Coalition’ – convened as they have over the decades in times of great change – to discuss feeling excluded from the United South End Settlements (USES) planning process.

That process included redefining the historic organization, and ultimately deciding to sell its prominent headquarters on Massachusetts and Columbus avenues.

The Coalition talked at length with USES over the fall and winter, members said, and in the process watched USES make the decision to sell the iconic Harriet Tubman House on the corner.

The question then became whether or not this was a big deal to the overall community. Those in the Coalition with a particular sensitivity to the history of the South End felt so, but they wondered if the community felt the same way.

After coming out of those fall and winter talks unsatisfied with USES’s answers to their questions, Coalition moderator Steven Godfrey (of Quincy Geneva Housing/New Vision CDC) said the group’s public meeting last week on March 13 was a test flight for the issue.

Would people pack the room with interest, or would it be a series of empty chairs in front of the Coalition panel?

That meeting in the basement of the Columbus Avenue AME Zion Church did bring a good crowd, and Godfrey said afterward they believed that the issue was proven to be important to the community.

A key point since last fall has been that organizations that have traditionally served communities of color and low-income residents were believed by the Coalition to be excluded from the USES process, including organizations like IBA, St. Stephens, Tenants Development Corporation (TDC) and Langham Court. They are organizations that have run hand-in-hand with USES over the decades, and Godfrey said they want to see data showing that there was inclusion.

While he supports USES, loves USES and doesn’t want to hurt them, he said the Coalition needs to clear the air of inconsistencies they see in the process.

“Anyone from the South End has known there has always been two South Ends,” Godfrey said. “That is no secret. The beauty is that those two communities have always understood the importance of having forums and of everyone being involved in that and being able to advocate for their position. We don’t think that happened here. We had an 18-month process and …people should document that process and show that it has not been the case…If I am wrong, I ask USES to prove it. If you have excluded a portion of the population, we ask you clear the air.”

USES has held a series of public meetings in the last 18 months, some of them about their 125th year Strategic Plan and others about their real estate plans. The real estate meetings resulted in the decision to keep a property on Rutland Street and dub it the new Harriet Tubman House, while selling the current Tubman House in an RFP process that would evaluate the maximum price and the maximum community benefit.

Nikki Stewart, USES vice president of Development, said they had many meetings, and continue to meet with the community and with people one-on-one about the changes. She said they have met with Mel King, IBA executives, Rev. Tim Crellin of St. Stephens, and several other organizations.

“USES has struggled financially for over 20 years now,” she said. “As a result, the current board and management had to make very difficult decisions about how to keep our organization functioning into the future. Our goal is to have the greatest impact on children and families in the future…The decision to move the Harriet Tubman House is a decision the organization has made in the past as well.”

In short, she said that in order to continue serving the South End children and families, they had

Former State Rep. Byron Rushing – who attended the March 13 meeting – said there were certainly USES-run public meetings and there is plenty of information online. However, he said maybe some feel the invitations to those meetings weren’t as widely spread as they could have been.

“We can’t say USES did nothing,” he said. “They did something, but we may say it was insufficient…I sat in meetings after meetings. Anyone could have gone and raised their hands and asked a question. Now, we may say that the invitations to those meetings weren’t extended to the right people.”

But at the meeting, so many others reported that they had no idea of the sale of the Tubman House.

Quanda Burrell said she was a former worker at USES and had her kids in programs there, and had never heard the building was being sold.

Chris Cato, a former board member of USES until recently, said he participated in the 18-month process and believes that it is flawed.

He said what is at issue isn’t that people are trying to make bad decisions, but rather that they don’t have the institutional knowledge to guide them in what they are doing.

“We’ve sat on the steps and watched the cars go by in this process now for a while,” he said. “A lot of traffic has gone by and it’s time to get off the steps. A lot of decisions are being made by people who mean well, but don’t know the South End culture and how it evolved here. There is a question about the decision making and the equity involved in it.”

Added Godfrey after the meeting, “When you say that you want to sell the Tubman House, knock it down and build luxury housing on it, while at the same time slapping the Tubman House name on another building in another location, it tells me one thing: You aren’t from Boston.”

What seems to also be in play is the two South Ends – in terms of how people hear about things, what some hold important as history in the neighborhood, and what the definition of progress might mean.

A key element of that which cannot be ignored, Godfrey said, was the importance of a building like the Tubman House in recent black history. The building played an important role in community organizing against urban renewal, the fight against poverty for all races, racism and access to education since it opened in 1975. For some in the community it means more than a chance to get out of debt, or a key corner in a hot real estate market.

Arnesse Brown of TDC said losing the Tubman House felt like the last piece of recent black history being erased from the neighborhood.

“They had high-level, luxury market developers going through the building and taking tours of the building and you had non-profits who were just waiting for the RFP while that was going on,” she said. “There were so many barriers put up for non-profits. By the time the RFP came out, it was too late for us. It takes so long for us to get all the financing together. These old organizations know what it took to get that building there – it was blood, sweat and tears. When you have a building in a prominent area named after a slave and you don’t include black and brown people in the discussion; it’s like the last erasing of African Americans in the South End.”

Godfrey said the Coalition is actively meeting, and they will come up with a list of ‘Asks’ as a takeaway from the meeting on March 13. He said they plan to move quickly and should have their asks out publicly within a week.

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