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Civil Rights Institute director has long history in Albany

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Raised on racial misconceptions formulated by men of the South, Lee Formwalt received a baptism by fire in the reality of racial politics when he came to Albany State University in 1977.

It didn't take the Catholic University-educated historian long to realize the preconceptions he brought with him from his Springhill, Mass., upbringing were far from the reality he saw in the faces of the students who sat in his classes each day.

"I came to Albany State thinking 'other' races shared certain characteristics," Formwalt said. "But when I got in that classroom, there was no time to see things like skin color. I saw only students before me."

Thus began the re-education of a scholar trained in American history at two of the nation's premier universities: Catholic U in Washington for undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees and the Univeristy of Massachusetts-Amherst for a master's.

"It took me a long time to come to terms with my whiteness," Formwalt said. "The reality is there are certain priviliges in this country that come with being born white. When you get that, you understand the fallacy in such silly concepts as reverse racism.

"As a white man, my experience at Albany State was such a gift. I am able to see things that most whites -- especially white men -- just don't get. When you start to understand these things, you start to realize why the election of an African-American president is such an incredible accomplishment."

Formwalt, now 60, spent the first 22 years of his professional career at ASU, then left for a 10-year stint as executive director of the prestigious Organization of American Historians in Bloomington, Ind. Now, the circle completed, he's back in Albany as executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute, charged with reversing the fortunes of a museum whose historical significance has been lost on the bulk of the region that spawned it.

"It's funny, but after I had been at Albany State for a period of time, I thought I'd end my days on the banks of the Flint River," Formwalt said during a conversation at his Civil Rights Institute office. "Then, after a time in Indiana, I thought I might end my career there.

"Now, here I am again. But it hasn't taken me long to fall in love with this place. After all, Albany is essentially where I come from professionally."

Formwalt faces a daunting task at the civil rights museum. Even with the recently completed $4.1 million special-purpose local-option sales tax-funded addition to the facility that was once squeezed into the sanctuary of tiny, historic Mount Zion Baptist Church, support for the Institute has been limited at best.

Shortly after the grand re-opening of the museum, the acting director of the facility was fired and it has foundered like a rudderless ship since.

"This is a beautiful facility now," Formwalt, who is contracted to be at the museum three weeks of each month, said. "And it certainly has a vital role to play as a place where the issue of race is addressed. What's been lacking is leadership that will create an opportunity for that to happen.

"We've started building momentum; now we have to keep it going. We're making plans ... monthly community nights, bringing in speakers, historians, civil rights participants, featuring the Freedom Singers. We are going to make it happen here."

Charlie Crapps, the president of the Institute's board of directors, said he's confident the board has the right person in place to alter the fortunes of the museum.

"Without a doubt, Lee's the right person for this job," Crapps said. "It's by God's grace that we contacted him at just the right time to get him back to Albany. He told us if we'd contacted him a year prior to when we did, he would have said no. It was a matter of right place, right time.

"We have begun to put a three-year plan in place that will allow us to respond to the needs of the Civil Rights Institute. That plan includes a better job of marketing the facility, more aggressive grant-writing and fundraising efforts and a broade