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Turmoil at Boston’s Museum of African American History over leadership change

The Museum of African American History in Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The news, delivered in a carefully worded statement, came as a shock to donors, advisers, and former employees of the Museum of African American History, a Beacon Hill institution that is home to the nation’s oldest surviving Black church building.

After two successful years at the museum’s helm, Leon Wilson — a respected former finance executive and nonprofit leader — was out. Exactly why, or who might succeed him, was unclear.

“Leon Wilson transitioned from his role at the Museum of African American History earlier this month, and the Board thanks him for his contributions during the past two years,” said a statement provided to the Globe on May 24 by board chair Sylvia Stevens-Edouard and also distributed to some of the museum’s advisers and other supporters. The statement included a quote attributed to Wilson that said, in part, “As I move on to other opportunities, I have enjoyed my tenure as President & CEO of [the Museum of African American History] and wish MAAH all the best in the future.”

The statement seemed to describe an amicable parting of ways after a fruitful, if somewhat brief, collaboration. But some museum supporters believed there was more to the story, an unexplained falling-out between Wilson and the museum’s board that has led to acrimony and casting of blame within the tight-knit community of the museum’s supporters. A month after Wilson’s departure, few seem to know the full story and even fewer are willing to talk about it publicly.

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“The notification you sent to the Advisory Board might lead one to conclude that Leon Wilson initiated his leaving the Museum,” Vivian Beard, a former trustee of Berklee College and longtime supporter of the museum, wrote to board chair Sylvia Stevens-Edouard in an e-mail obtained by the Globe, one of a flurry of messages sent to Stevens-Edouard and other board members in late May about Wilson’s departure. “That impression would be inaccurate.”

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Then-acting mayor Kim Janey and Leon Wilson, former president and CEO of the Museum of African American History, were seen during an event at the museum in July 2021. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

Founded in 1968, the Museum of African American History, which has campuses on Beacon Hill and Nantucket, has become a foundational institution for Black history, culture, and philanthropy in Massachusetts. It has been at the center of efforts to highlight Martin Luther King Jr.’s deep ties to Boston, and when former acting mayor Kim Janey’s administration organized an event last year touting City Hall’s accomplishments, the old church building was chosen as the venue.

But the museum’s financial position deteriorated in recent years. Between 2014 and 2019, its net assets declined from $14 million to just over $11 million as a budget surplus, approximately $500,000 in 2014, turned into a deficit in excess of $700,000, according to tax filings. In his two years on the job, Wilson, a longtime finance executive who became the museum’s president and CEO in early 2020, seemed to have righted the ship. In his first year at the helm, the museum’s net assets stabilized and its deficit shrank below $15,000.

“Leon has done his job,” Stevens-Edouard told Boston University’s alumni magazine for an article about Wilson published in January. “The museum is on track, developing new and deeper relations with funders, area colleges and universities, as well as community stakeholders. Under his leadership, the museum is moving proudly forward.”

But by the spring, the relationship between Wilson and the board had broken down, according to additional e-mails between board members and museum supporters obtained by the Globe. Around the time of his departure from the museum, Wilson asked for an audience with the museum’s board, Beard wrote in her e-mail. But Wilson never got the chance to speak with the board directly, according to his lawyer, Joseph Feaster.

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The terms of Wilson’s separation from the museum, as well as the wording of the May 24 statement, were worked out through negotiations between Feaster and a lawyer for the museum, Feaster said.

Stevens-Edouard, an executive at Liberty Mutual, did not respond to questions about Wilson’s departure. Feaster said Wilson was not available for an interview and declined to explain why Wilson and the museum parted ways.

In her e-mail to Stevens-Edouard, Beard, who has known Wilson for decades, according to Feaster, contended that Wilson was fired. “Leon did not leave voluntarily,” she wrote. “He was dismissed on very short notice.” In response, other museum supporters wrote that Wilson’s departure was “abrupt” and ill-advised. Donna Gittens, the founder and CEO of More Advertising who was a member of the museum’s leadership advisers group in 2021, expressed surprise over the leadership change, saying the museum had made “steady progress” during Wilson’s tenure.

Gittens, Beard, and current board members did not respond to requests for comment. Only one supporter of the museum, Paul Karoff, a board member for 30 years until December, would speak on the record, saying, “I’m advised that the statement you and I both saw was put out in coordination with Leon and that the two parties are in agreement that that is what will be said about the matter.”

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Last week, the museum’s board said it had selected a search firm to help hire a new CEO.

Feaster, Wilson’s lawyer, said that before his departure, Wilson had been working for the museum full time and had remained actively engaged in the organization’s affairs, as well as his other commitments, such as serving as a director of OneUnited Bank.

“Leon’s like me,” he said. “We don’t retire until the good Lord calls us home.”


Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.