Festive Debt | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Festive Debt

Sistrunk is the historic hub of Broward County's black population. Although the recent census found many of the neighborhood's residents have moved west during the last decade, its main drag northwest of downtown Fort Lauderdale remains the area's most visible symbol of African-American commerce. Named for James Franklin Sistrunk, one of the first black doctors in Broward, NW Sixth Street became the venue in 1980 for the annual Sistrunk Historical Festival.

Since it incorporated as a nonprofit in August 1982, the Sistrunk Historical Festival Inc. has delivered the best of African-American, African, and Afro-Caribbean folk arts, food, and history in year-round programs. The SHF has staged events showcasing photography, ceramics, poetry, and drama. Performers have included Jamaican folklorists, Bahamian steel drummers, and Southern gospel musicians.

"The festival doesn't just tell about the history of Sistrunk but [about] the history of our people, our transitions from Africa to America," explains Phyllis Jones, an SHF board member who helped organize events during the mid-1990s. "It fills in a lot of the gaps that the schools are just not teaching. It's history that every African-American and person of color -- everybody -- needs."

Weighed down by about $90,000 in debt, the SHF is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. But even that escape route won't be easy. Some members of the group's board of directors are headed to civil court in an attempt to wrest financial documents from the organization's treasurer. The turmoil may abort the 22nd festival this February.

Seeds for the SHF were planted early in the last century by James Sistrunk. After serving in World War I and then practicing medicine for two years in Dunnellon, a small town in Central Florida, Sistrunk moved to Fort Lauderdale in April 1922. Because he was black, segregation prohibited him from performing surgery in Broward's hospitals; he was restricted instead to treating illnesses and delivering babies at home. (By some estimates he brought about 5000 newborns into the world during his career.) He was the only black physician in the city for 16 years until Dr. Von D. Mizell arrived in 1938. The pair established Provident Hospital the same year.

In the late 1960s residents of the area along NW Sixth Street began urging the Fort Lauderdale City Commission to rename the thoroughfare in Sistrunk's honor. The commission unanimously agreed in September 1971. In the decade that followed, the neighborhood endured high unemployment and growing poverty. To buoy neighborhood businesses, the city opened the Von D. Mizell Multipurpose Center at 1409 Sistrunk Blvd. in 1980. The two-day christening of the center, which drew about 30,000 people, became the first Sistrunk Historical Festival. The event has received its share of positive press coverage through the years: The Sun-Sentinel has mentioned the SHF in 475 articles during recent decades, The Miami Herald in 201. Neither paper has probed deeply into the organization's finances.

Even as the event grew in popularity, however, organizers began to argue over its direction. In 1985 about 200,000 people attended the SHF, which at that time received funding through the Broward County Tourist Development Council. In 1986 the festival moved to Osswald Park, several miles north of Sistrunk and west of I-95. For the first time, admission was charged: a dollar for visitors nine years old or older. Some in the community complained the relocation thwarted the original purpose of helping black-owned businesses on Sistrunk.

The festival returned to Sistrunk after several years, the entrance fee was dropped, and the organization began accruing debt. Costs for police and cleanup increased. By 1996 the board owed the city about $32,000; that amount doubled by the 1997 celebration. Critics continued to complain about the SHF's drift from its original mission and image. Keith Clayborne, publisher of The Broward Times, nicknamed the 1996 festival "Ghettofest," saying at the time that the event had a "riffraff, tattered look."

Stung by the criticism and faced with mounting debt, the organizers in 1998 moved to the 30-acre Delevoe Park at 2520 NW Sixth St. They reinstituted an entry fee: $3 for adults, $1 for kids. The event cleared $17,000, and the city was repaid $10,000. Other problems arose. Executive director Sandra Galloway resigned soon after the 1999 festival; hers was the third such departure in 18 months.

James Jones, an attorney who lives in Pembroke Pines and joined the board in late 1999, recalls that the debt cast a pall over board meetings. "It was always an issue of how to wipe the slate clean in order to move forward as an organization," he says. "I wouldn't say there were ever factions or divisiveness on the board. It was a matter of reasonable minds differing about how to take care of this huge problem." They discussed bankruptcy, then dismissed the idea, he says. They made efforts to negotiate with the city to reduce or erase the debt, but "nothing materialized with that," he remembers.

"Primarily we never got over the hurdles of the problems we'd inherited," Jones sums up, but the conundrum remained: Cut back on events and programs, and there's no chance to make money to pay off the debt. Put on more events, and the debt likely increases. Jones resigned from the board shortly after the 2000 festival.

Despite the SHF's success this past winter (thousands showed up for the event), the board has fallen into dysfunction. "There's no chair, no vice chair, and there are only four members of the board," says Tanya Simons-Oparah, who led the SHF for eight years until 1995 and has since acted as a technical adviser. "It's supposed to have nine board members, so it's not even functioning according to its mandate as a nonprofit organization. There is no leadership." Cleveland Ferguson, the event's most recent executive director, resigned last year but continued to work for six months as a volunteer. The position had paid $10,300 a year.

Ferguson, an attorney, is now legally representing what he calls "a majority" of board members in seeking bankruptcy. Ferguson explains: "The majority of the board over the course of the last nine months has tried to pursue additional options for fundraising and generating capital through corporate and community sponsors. They've been unable to do that in large part because they don't have access to information that the treasurer has been basically controlling."

When New Times telephoned treasurer Debbie Atwell at her job and told her of Ferguson's allegation, she responded: "Excuse me? He told you I refused to let him look at the books? No, that's not true." Atwell then hung up and did not return phone messages seeking more details.

Ferguson plans to file a petition in Broward Circuit Court to compel Atwell to turn over ledgers, bank books, correspondence, and all records of creditors. After obtaining the documents, he wants to move forward with Chapter 7 bankruptcy, under which SNF's assets would be sold to repay creditors. "The board is taking reasonable action to be able to proceed with bankruptcy and then restructure the organization so it can continue for the next 20 years," Ferguson explains. (Three board members contacted by New Times either declined to comment or did not return phone messages. Ferguson acknowledges that he advised them not to comment.) The majority of board members have not seen a financial statement from the organization's bank in more than a year, he claims.

How grim is it? A recently completed audit by the Fort Lauderdale CPA firm of Robbins and Landino shows the group is $91,559 in the hole. Moreover $32,000 in annual funding from the Broward Cultural Affairs Division is now on hold. And because the audit was submitted after its due date of March 30, the board must go before the county commission to explain the tardiness.

Robert Payne doesn't think the community can afford to waste time while the board squabbles, and he thinks Ferguson is moving too hastily toward bankruptcy. A Fort Lauderdale native and community activist, Payne is planning a communitywide meeting at the Von Mizell Library for Monday, August 27, at 7 p.m. to discuss new directions for the festival and the formation of a new board. "Sistrunk has been the historical home of blacks in Fort Lauderdale," Payne says, "so we've been talking to teachers and churches about bringing in members who are willing to donate the time to come in, go to workshops, and get this resurging."

Ferguson dismisses Payne's criticism, saying he "has absolutely no idea about what's going on," and continues: "The festival carried 67 events last year with little to no funds, just with community and corporate sponsorship. Reorganization will enable the board to continue free of debt to work out relationships with their creditors and attract sponsorship dollars."