W. Frank Wilson came out of comfortable retirement to take a position as interim director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute, and he said he’s ready to tell the community about the museum. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — At 67 and with years of experience in the education and work force development arenas, W. Frank Wilson’s been around the block more than a few times.
So you’ll have to forgive him if he doesn’t try and convince you, like so many have before him, that his latest endeavor — interim director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute — is some massive undertaking whose success will require a superhuman effort on his part.
“It’s really pretty simple,” Wilson said of his plans to take the often maligned historical museum to heights never before reached. “I’m going to dare to go where folk have never gone before and speak to folk who’ve never been talked to before. I’m going to go to the Civitan meetings, the Sertoma meetings, the women’s garden club meetings, to white churches, to nondenominational churches. I’m going to talk to people, because ultimately this is about people.”
And the message Wilson will bring?
“I want to expose the history of the civil rights movement in Albany for what it is: the history of Southwest Georgia,” the new new ACRI director said. “It’s not just the history of Albany; it’s the history of Terrell County and Sumter County and Mitchell County and Lee County. And it’s not just the history of black people in Southwest Georgia. It’s all of our history.
“I think it’s vital that the Albany Civil Rights Institute be viewed as a community institution. We need to tell the whole story, not one painted with a narrow racial brush.”
Wilson, a native of Colquitt County, was asked to fill the void left with former ACRI Director Lee Formwalt’s move to Indiana more than a year ago.
“I was approached by a member of the board of directors and asked if an opportunity came up for me to serve as director, would I be interested,” Wilson said. “I didn’t hesitate, told them I’d be honored to serve. As a historian, I saw it as a tremendous opportunity to be involved in something dear to me.”
Wilson earned a degree in history at then Fort Valley State College and later upgraded to a master’s at Suffield University in Idaho. He taught in Pelham, Moultrie, Randolph County and at the private (Presbyterian) Boggs Academy in Keysville before leaving the education field in 1973 to take a position with the national Urban League in Columbus.
“When I started teaching, Georgia schools were still going through the integration process,” Wilson said. “Having attended an all-black high school and an all-black college, my first experience with white students came while I was teaching. But I was stupid enough to believe students were students, and I saw no reason to do anything differently. I was teaching history; there was no reason to cater to any race or gender.”
With the Urban League in Columbus, Wilson worked specifically with minorities and women, helping them adjust to their expanded roles in the workplace. He helped implement unique employment and economic development strategies in the growing west Georgia city before spending two years with the Urban League in Albany and five with the national organization’s Atlanta branch.
“In Columbus and Albany, I helped shepherd women and minorities into supervisory positions,” Wilson said. “The program we developed became the standard by which others throughout the nation were measured. Think about it: You have minorities in a position where they’re supervising white employees for the first time. And women, who’d been relegated to domestic, secretarial and other service-type positions in our work force, were asked to put in sweat equity for the first time.
“In Atlanta, the programs we worked on helped open jobs for citizens 55 and over. Our culture had always tended to put people out to pasture once they got into their 50s, but we tapped into that sector of the population. We did some pretty revolutionary things during that time. I laugh about it now, but once someone asked me, ‘Why do you work so hard to find jobs for people 55 and over?’ I said, ‘Because one day I’m going to be 55.’ It was about breaking down barriers.”
With funding cuts looming, Wilson started looking for work in the private sector and landed a position with the Big Brothers & Sisters of America organization. He was there for eight years, noting with satisfaction the number of lives the organization touched.
“I got a (graduation) invitation this summer from a mother whose son was being awarded an MBA,” he said. “(When the graduate became part of the Big Brothers & Sisters program) he was ready to drop out of school. One man spending part of every Saturday with this kid — even when his mother remarried — changed his life.”
Wilson “met a young lady” who had a nice business in Albany, so he chose to leave the big city for life a little closer to home and a lot closer to her. He helped “plant seeds” for retail and economic growth in the city’s “enterprise community” as the state’s first retail developer with the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Commission, which led to a position as the city of Dawson’s first-ever director of community development.
Wilson was lured away from his position in Dawson by Albany State University, working for six years as director of grant programs designed to examine work force development opportunities in Southwest Georgia and a teacher education program that provided an opportunity for paraprofessionals working in the Dougherty County School System to earn degrees and teaching certificates.
“There was already an interest in teaching among students in the ‘Destination Teaching’ program,” he said. “We helped them with the issues that kept them from getting their degree: finances, child care, time factors. We customized programs to fit their schedules, and I know of at least 17 (former paras) in the program who went on to earn at least four-year degrees.”
Wilson served as director of ASU’s Center for the African-American Male and was an academic advisor at the university for five years before retiring in 2010. But retirement didn’t exactly take.
“I took a moment to get used to the idea: learned to play a little golf, watched a lot of ‘Matlock’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ reruns and kept up with my favorite soap opera, ‘Days of Our Lives,’” Wilson laughed. “I’m an unabashed fan of that show, been watching it for more than 30 years.
“But I felt I still had plenty to give, and when the opportunity came up at the Civil Rights Institute, I didn’t have to even think about it. I immediately said yes.”
Wilson said he’s already set goals for the attraction, including working with educational institutions in the region to make ACRI a “required field trip” destination and building a membership roster of “no less than 5,000.”
“I don’t see these as lofty goals,” he said. “I think they’re very attainable goals. It’s just going to take me getting out there and talking to people. I don’t see this position as an office job. If I’m spending a lot of time in this office, I’m not doing my job.
“I don’t know of anybody out there who’s going to knock on our doors and say, ‘Here, take this money.’ We’ve got to work for it, take our message to the people who can and want to help us. I’ve got to be the pied piper here. I don’t believe we can say, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ We’ve got to give them a reason to come.”
The museum is open Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Membership or general information is available by calling (229) 432-1698.