The group wanting to preserve a historic Northwest Decatur home and turn it into a museum is seeking a meeting with city officials over the terms in the proposed warranty deed.

The City Council voted in April to give the historic property to the nonprofit Celebrating Early Old Town with Art, but the deed required the group to meet certain benchmarks for renovating the deteriorating house and provided that the title would revert to the city if the group failed to do so. 

The 98-year-old home at 818 Sycamore St. N.W. is believed to have been where the alleged victim and key witness stayed during the Scottsboro Boys trial in 1933. 

In a May 16 letter to the city, CEOTA representative Gerald G. Ginwright outlines issues with control of the property and “unwarranted expectations” provided in the deed proposed by the city. It was Ginwright’s second letter on the issue to the city.

“I hope we can set up a meeting for sometime next week with the city attorney,” Ginwright said Thursday.

City Council President Paige Bibbee said she is “a bit confused” by a second letter from CEOTA to the city. She pointed out the council had already voted to give the house at a 10 a.m. meeting April 15, and Ginwright’s first letter rejecting terms of the deed arrived at City Hall at 4:30 p.m. that day.

“At this point, it’s a legal issue,” Bibbee said. “We need to talk to our Legal Department on what change we need to meet to amend what we did and accommodate CEOTA.”

CEOTA Chairwoman Frances Tate would not comment. She referred any questions to Ginwright, a financial consultant from Birmingham,

Ginwright said he believes his client and the city can reach a compromise “that should satisfy the city and give CEOTA needed control of the property. We expect to resolve this matter or determine if there’s a hidden agenda.”

City Attorney Herman Marks said he has not talked with CEOTA officials, but he is in the process of setting up a meeting.

“We need to talk to someone and get an idea of what they want,” Marks said. “This will be a preliminary meeting to see if we can come up with a consensus. Then we would present it to the mayor and council.”

CEOTA wants to renovate the home as the start of a plan to build a multimillion-dollar civil rights museum.

Councilman Billy Jackson called the demands on CEOTA “unreasonable,” and said the council majority isn’t making the same demand on others seeking donated property. For example, he said the council isn’t making the same demands for information on the Boys and Girls Clubs of North Alabama, which wants the city to give it the vacant Third Street Fire Station.

“They’re trying to do some positive and we’re pushing back on everything,” Jackson said.`

Retired Judge David Breland is in the unusual position of working for the city as director of historic resources and events and serving as a member of the CEOTA board.

“Obviously, we want to go forward with our plans for a Scottsboro Boys trial and civil rights museum,” Breland said.

Breland said there are three clauses in the city’s proposed deed that would restrict the work in historic preservation.

Ginwright’s letter says the group agrees with the deed’s 18-month timetable for improvements.

Bibbee said this timetable is the most important part of the deed, especially since the house is such bad shape.

The group doesn’t like that the city’s proposal keeps it involved in the project and creates a “lack of control” of the property that could complicate fundraising.

CEOTA is concerned about the “troublesome restrictions” placed on the property and the possibility the city or state could reclaim the property at no cost even though CEOTA might have spent a lot on money on renovations.

The group is concerned with the city’s "want of perpetual involvement in the project," according to Ginwright's letter.

“They’ve made these restrictions without explaining what ‘unsatisfactory’ is,” Breland said.

The deed is written like there is doubt CEOTA can raise the money it needs, Breland said, but he thinks the project will be successful.

“Civil rights museums are a fast-growing genre in our country,” Breland said. “They’ve been highly successful, and the Scottsboro Boys trial is a definitive moment in Decatur and in the civil rights movement. It changed the legal system in our country.”

bayne.hughes@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2432. Twitter @DD_BayneHughes.

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