Civil Rights Institute gets new executive director

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

ALBANY -- The Albany Civil Rights Institute has a familiar face at the helm. Retired Albany State University history professor Lee Formwalt has been named the organization's new executive director.

Formwalt was introduced during a news conference at the Institute Tuesday by Charlie Grapps, the organization's new chairman of its board of directors.

"Today is the beginning of a new era," Grapps said.

That new era, according to Formwalt, will include raising funds for the Institute.

"I plan on applying for federal and state grants," the Springfield, Mass., native said.

Formwalt explained that such funding is necessary because the Institute has garnered just 540 members paying $45 annual dues since its 1994 founding. It's a concern shared by others involved with the organization.

"When we founded this museum and knew we needed memberships, nobody could have convinced me that we could not have gotten three or four thousand $45-memberships," said founding board member C.W. Grant in an interview following the conference.

But the Institute has received funding from the city of Albany, the Dougherty County Commission, Mount Zion Church and capital funding campaigns. The most recent financial influx came from a grant from the Dougherty County Commission, which will give the Institute $150,000 over the next three years to make the hire of Formwalt possible.

In addition to grants and membership drives, the new executive director plans to bring more attention to philanthropic opportunities, including a program that creates legacies at the Institute's bricked Freedom Plaza.

"For $150, you can have your name put on a brick," Formwalt said.

Contributions to the Institute, he pointed out, are investments in the preservation of Southwest Georgia's history.

"It's not a commitment to a black museum," Formwalt said. "It's a commitment to our museum."

In addition to fundraising, he plans to market the Institute beyond Southwest Georgia.

"We want to get the word out to the rest of the world," the executive director said.

Plus, Formwalt hopes to revitalize a "vibrant series of programs," such as Saturday's upcoming discussion and signing of "Mill Daddy: The Life and Times of Roy Davis," by Albany author Bill Lightle.

"It's the first one since last year," said Formwalt, who holds a doctorate degree in history from Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

For the executive director, returning to Albany is a trip full circle, as he had a hand in the Civil Rights Institute's creation while teaching history at Albany State from 1977 to 1999.

"During that time, I wrote about the history of Southwest Georgia," Formwalt said.

That included researching about 19th century slavery in Southwest Georgia, which then led to Formwalt's notice of old Mount Zion Church.

"I thought this had been the place that Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken," he said, explaining that his research confirmed that thought. "This building was sacred ground."

That led to the Whitney Avenue church being placed on the National Register of Historic places and subsequently to the creation of the Civil Rights Institute.

But when Formwalt retired from Albany State in 1999, he moved to Indiana where he served as executive director of the Organization of American Historians for the last decade. After retiring from that position, he found himself returning to the Good Life City.

"Here's where I started out, and here's where I wrap up my career," Formwalt said.