Business

Duke Energy may turn out the lights at Greensboro’s Civil Rights Museum

In the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, you can see the lunch counter where the famous 1960 sit-in took place. A dispute over electricity charges may lead Duke Energy to cut off power to the museum, keeping visitors from seeing the historic Jim Crow era lunch counter.
In the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, you can see the lunch counter where the famous 1960 sit-in took place. A dispute over electricity charges may lead Duke Energy to cut off power to the museum, keeping visitors from seeing the historic Jim Crow era lunch counter. Charlotte Observer File Photo

A long-running billing dispute between Duke Energy and the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro could cut off electricity to the site of the historic 1960 civil-rights sit-in at a segregated F.W. Woolworth lunch counter.

Museum officials have turned to the N.C. Utilities Commission for help with Duke’s demand that the nonprofit organization pay $3,224 a month toward a $18,244 credit deposit or risk losing power.

Duke did turn off the museum’s lights for several hours in February – during Black History Month, the museum’s busiest period.

The museum is asking the Utilities Commission to block Duke’s attempt to collect the deposit, which amounts to about two months of electricity bills for the organization. Museum officials, in a letter to the commission, also suggest Duke is meddling in Greensboro race relations and colluding with Greensboro officials in a bid to wrest control of the organization from its black-majority board of directors.

Duke did turn off the museum’s lights for several hours in February – during Black History Month, the museum’s busiest period forcing the museum to issue $765 in refunds to a canceled Union County school tour, $800 to a corporate conference that had to be moved across the street and $253 to a visiting group from Durham.

“I was expecting an apology from Duke and restitution for our lost revenues,” John Swaine, the museum’s CEO, said in an interview Wednesday. “One thing I find difficult to understand is why Duke Energy would have taken actions so hostile to a local corporation that is serving as such a powerful local economic generator.”

Duke is asking the Utilities Commission to dismiss the museum’s complaint. The Charlotte-based electric company told the commission in a Tuesday filing that the museum has been delinquent on its bills numerous times since 2009 – with a history of late bills, insufficient payments and three deferred-payment plans. Duke said it sent the museum 23 disconnect notices between October 2012 and January 2017, before it turned off the power in February. The museum owed Duke about $14,000 and had sent the payments by mail, Swaine said. Duke said in its filing the bill had not been paid when the utility disconnected power.

“Duke Energy Carolinas has had a customer representative work closely with Complainant and its management in an effort to keep power on to the Sit-In Museum,” Duke told the Utilities Commission in its filing. “Duke Energy Carolinas representatives have made every reasonable effort within the Company’s procedures and the Commission’s rules to avoid disconnection for past-due bills.”

Duke had scheduled to disconnect the museum’s power on at least three occasions since last fall, but delayed the decision, according to email updates the company sent to the Utilities Commission. In the past two years, the museum was behind on its power bills every month, and had failed to send a payment in six separate months.

As Duke persisted in its collections, Swaine expressed increasing frustration in his emails to regulatory staff.

“They intend to take all of the money that we have to operate,” he wrote on March 19. “I am assuming that Duke would like to try to shut us down once again.”

The civil-rights museum has experienced financial troubles for years. The Greensboro City Council loaned the museum $1.5 million in 2013 and extended the repayment terms until February 2018 to resolve a disagreement between museum officials and city officials over amounts still owed. The museum still owes Carolina Bank $776,000 on a $4 million loan, and its total outstanding debt is under $1 million, said Swaine, who doubles as the museum’s chief financial officer.

The museum preserves the original stools and lunch counter where four African-American students sat at a segregated Woolworth’s store in 1960 and ordered lunch, helping to spark the civil rights movement across the South. The Woolworth sit-in quickly spread to other stores such as Hudson-Belk, Eckerd’s and Walgreen’s, The N&O reported in February 1960.

The museum runs on a $1.4 million budget that supports four full-time and eight part-time employees, Swaine said. About 70,000 people visit the museum each year, he said, and the electricity bill can exceed $10,000 a month.

Swaine said the museum has raised about $11,500 in charitable donations from Duke; the power company’s foundation turned down the museum’s request several years ago for a $250,000 grant, citing management turnover and delinquent bills.

The museum has owed Duke as much as $40,000 in unpaid bills, Swaine acknowledged, but said its power bills are currently paid up.

On Wednesday, Swaine reiterated that he thinks the museum has not been treated fairly, a point museum officials made in their letter to the Utilities Commission.

“It can only be interpreted that [Duke Energy] intended to help those forces who wished to take over the Museum,” museum officials said. “It appears that Duke Energy ... involved itself in the politics of Greensboro and particularly in the race relations in Greensboro and had injected itself into the situation to help put financial pressure on the Museum, embarrass the Museum, and to hurt fundraising with the end result that the black-run Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro would collapse and allow the City of Greensboro [to seize control] as they had attempted before.”

Swaine’s suspicions are based on Duke notifying two board members of the February power disconnect, but not alerting him directly. He said Duke contacted Greensboro city manager Jim Westmoreland and Mayor Nancy Vaughan, both of whom have positions on the museum’s board until the $1.5 million loan from the city is repaid.

Westmoreland and Vaughan did not return calls seeking comment.

Duke declined to comment about the specifics of the museum’s complaint.

“Disconnecting a customer’s service is the very last step in our collections process and it’s an action we never want to take,” Duke said in a statement. “While it’s unfortunate that our efforts to assist the museum’s leaders with their delinquencies have resulted in a formal complaint to the NCUC, we will cooperate fully within the process to ensure facts about the experience, including the basis for the deposit requirement, are presented.”

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski

  Comments