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Director of Buffalo’s African American Cultural Center leads protest against her own board

Protest outside African American Cultural Center
Mike Desmond
Protesters gather outside the African American Cultural Center on Sept. 20, 2021. They were protesting in support of Executive Director Tina Washington-Abubeker and her dispute with the center's board.

A simmering dispute over control of Buffalo’s African American Cultural Center blew open Monday night with a protest in front of the Masten Avenue landmark, with the board inside and the protestors outside.

The agency board was inside for a regularly-scheduled meeting, while Executive Director Tina Washington-Abubeker was outside railing against the board and claiming they are stripping her role as the manager. It's a dispute which has been bubbling below the surface for a while during the COVID-19 pandemic, but blew open with Washington-Abubeker’s open letter in the Challenger Community News.

African American Cultural Center
Mike Desmond
Buffalo's African American Cultural Center on Masten Avenue, the site of a dispute between the agency's executive director and its board.

Washington-Abubeker said the problems go back to the death of her predecessor, Agnes Bain, and the long time before hiring her as a replacement last year.

“Now, when I enter the picture seven months later, there are a lot of things that haven't been done. So, now, in addition to not having a succession plan for me to transition into place, the board has also still not figured out what was going on with the agency and where the agency was going to go,” she said. “So, in other words, there was no strategic plan.”

An attempt to go inside and ask the board for comment was blocked by a slammed door. When some of the board members tried to get into their cars and leave, they were blocked at the parking lot entrance by the protesters chanting, “The board must go.”

The African American Cultural Center has been a key element of Buffalo's Black community since Malcolm Erni started it in 1958. It's been the centerpiece of plans for a cultural campus centered on the African American Cultural Center and its Paul Robeson Theatre.

Long-time cultural activist Akua Kamau-Harris said Bain and Alicia Banner kept the center going in hard times.

“They were willing to work for less money than they should have been making and all the other ills,” Kamau-Harris said. “So, now to have someone come in and to treat them like that is just not fair. It's not just fair to this community that the board never directed their dissatisfaction to the community, like she put hers forward. The board should have done that for this community too so we can understand: What is your dissatisfaction?”

African American Cultural Center
Mike Desmond
Protesters hold signs outside the African American Cultural Center Sept. 20, 2021.

Washington-Abubeker is appealing to the larger community to support her and keep the cultural center and all of its activities in operation.

“We have the distinction of being one of few African-American cultural centers in this nation,” she said. “Then, furthermore the Paul Robeson Theatre is a rarity in and of itself. The fact that it is a Black theater and that it had its start in 1968 and is still standing.”