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Theartrice Williams, who ran the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center during the civil rights era, has returned to the north Minneapolis institution to restore confidence to the struggling nonprofit and work with staffers to revive its storied brand.

The 83-year-old Williams, who served as the center’s executive director from 1965 to 1972, was named interim executive director in December after the governing board forced out Executive Director Brianna Miller after less than a year on the job. Miller’s tenure had been marred by layoffs and the loss of a state contract.

Williams said the center is already working to forge new community partners that will attract more people for recreational activities, community celebrations and other events. Many of those activities, including an after-school program, have been dropped over the years due to budget constraints.

“Those type of recreational activities are so important. Kids need an opportunity to engage in energy-burning activities,” Williams said. “We have a generation who only knows Phyllis Wheatley as a social service agency. These are valuable programs, but we have to wrap something else around them.”

At the same time, staffers also are working to shore up existing programs such as the Mary T. Wellcome Child Development Center, the Be@School program to lower truancy rates and the Stronger Together programs that counsel victims and perpetrators of family violence.

“We have to do a better job of telling our story,” said Williams, pointing out that Wheatley’s child development program, for preschoolers from 16 months to 5 years of age, has only 30 of 54 spots filled.

Williams said he plans to stay only until the board hires a permanent leader who can keep the momentum going. There are already some new activities in the works that he hopes will spur innovation.

For instance, a husband and wife team would like to use the center to run a step dance group. University of Minnesota Extension 4-H is holding a Metro Art Force event for youth artists and their families at the community center on March 3 and developing a longer-term relationship. A well-known foundation has approached Wheatley and will make a site visit to its early childhood program.

Williams said he would also like to develop a network of successful Phyllis Wheatley alumni. “Phyllis Wheatley is a tremendous asset,” he said. “There are ways to invest in it to make it an even greater asset.”

A spokesman for the Minnesota attorney general’s office said Thursday that Wheatley had not yet filed its 990 federal nonprofit tax form for 2016. Williams said he is personally overseeing efforts to complete the tax form and financial audit and that they should be filed in a month’s time; he said he is also overseeing work on the 2017 financial forms.

‘A community pillar’

Phyllis Wheatley opened as a settlement house in 1924, the first human service agency in the Twin Cities dedicated to black community members. It’s named after an 18th-century slave who became the first published African-American female poet.

It was one of the few places where black visitors could stay in Minneapolis when hotels were segregated, according to the nonprofit’s website, and became the center of the social scene for black residents by midcentury. The Minnesota Historical Society in 2008 named the Wheatley Center one of “150 people, places and things that shaped our state.”

Professionals and community members who grew up spending time at Wheatley often stop to drop off treats for the kids and say hello.

Williams said he’d like to harness that nostalgia to form a group of supporters and volunteers that can breath new life into the center. Moving forward, he’d like to secure contracts with other counties for services and diversify the nonprofit’s funding sources.

Financial support for Wheatley, including grants and membership, has declined from $1.62 million in 2010 to $1.16 million in 2015. It received $360,000 in government contracts, $323,000 in service fees and other revenue from the Greater Twin Cities United Way: $285,000 in 2015 and $249,000 in 2016.

“Phyllis Wheatley Community Center is experiencing some tough challenges, putting pressure on the board to determine what’s next. … We strongly believe in the organization’s mission,” said Sarah Caruso, president and CEO of the United Way, in an e-mail.

She added: “Since 1927, this organization has been a pillar in the community. We hope its history, culture and legacy will remain strong.”

Williams, who has a master’s in social work, worked in nonprofit consulting and served on the Minneapolis school board from 2007 to 2011. He led Wheatley when racial tensions boiled over in north Minneapolis in July 1967 and violence erupted along Plymouth Avenue. Williams later was invited by 14 Minneapolis corporate leaders to help form the Urban Coalition.

Hennepin County probation and court officials refer individuals to Wheatley programs. Williams said that Anoka and Ramsey County probation officers sometimes send people over for group counseling, which the nonprofit has provided free of charge.

Lucius Luther, a retired Hennepin County probation officer, runs the Stronger Together men’s program. About 200 men, most guilty of domestic violence, attend group therapy each year.

Luther said he welcomes an expansion of community and recreation programs. It’s a chance to get people already going to Wheatley for a sports league or activity to get help on family issues before they wind up in court.

“I really believe in the mission of Phyllis Wheatley,” Luther said. “In difficult political times, people need refuge and access to information.”

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804