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The Rev. Henry Lyons

 

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Lyons overstated gifts to colleges by $345,000

By MONICA DAVEY, MIKE WILSON and DAVID BARSTOW

©St. Petersburg Times, published September 19, 1997


As president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the Rev. Henry J. Lyons has portrayed himself as a friend of black colleges.

"Every dollar I could find, I pressed it into" colleges, he has said. "Every dollar we could get above expenses went to education."

That claim helped him keep his job. When members tried to depose Lyons this month in Denver for alleged financial wrongdoing, supporters cited his concern for black colleges as a major reason to forgive him.

Lyons often boasts -- and others proudly repeat -- that the convention has given $2-million to black colleges since he took office in late 1994.

"Look at my records," Lyons said.

This is what the records show:

The convention didn't give as much to education as Lyons has claimed.

In interviews with the Times, Lyons said he overstated his contributions to black colleges by about $345,000. He said he discovered the error after learning the Times was checking with colleges. By his most recent accounting, the convention has given $1.65-million to black colleges, not $2-million. The higher number, he said, was "what we'd like to do, if we had the money."

Even the lower figure is in dispute. Officials from several colleges said they had no record of receiving a total of $190,000 that Lyons says was given to them by the convention. Lyons, for example, said Selma University in Alabama got $217,005, but interim president J.C. Carter said it received only $60,000. In May, the college filed for bankruptcy reorganization under Chapter 11.

"If that kind of money had come here, we wouldn't be in the quagmire we're in now," Carter said.

Although Lyons has worked hard on behalf of black colleges, especially small ones, at least four institutions Lyons said he supported say they didn't receive any donations.

In 1995, Lyons appointed a commission to oversee the convention's dealings with the colleges, but some members have no idea which schools get money or how much they get. Lyons alone makes those judgments.

Even he is unsure how much money the convention has given colleges. In an interview, Lyons produced a chart listing $1.6-million in gifts. The chart was a work in progress, he said.

"This is what I can come up with," he said. "That ain't absolute."

As he looked at the list, Lyons found errors in his own numbers. "I don't think that is correct," Lyons said, pointing to a contribution to a Virginia school. A day later, after more questions from reporters, his staff revised the chart, adding new names and numbers.

Support for black schools

Lyons long has preached the importance of supporting historically black colleges. Many of the institutions on Lyons' list were founded when African-Americans were excluded from white schools. For years, these colleges offered black people their only real chance at a higher education. After integration, many black colleges withered or closed

As recently as this month, Lyons urged black parents to honor African-American history by sending their children to black colleges.

"That must be our commitment," he said in an emotional speech at the convention's annual session in Denver.

Lyons' own commitment has gone beyond words. For three consecutive years, he has appeared at a fund-raising banquet for Mississippi Baptist Seminary in Jackson. The school has received about $15,000 from the convention, but Lyons' speeches -- for which he received no honoraria -- were worth far more than that, seminary president Hickman Johnson said.

"Having the president here encourages others to give. And it works. So you can't measure that in terms of dollars and cents," Johnson said.

Still, when it comes to Lyons' support of African-American colleges, there is a gap between image and reality.

It is impossible to verify independently how much money the convention has sent to black colleges. No public record exists of such giving. Some schools would not say how much they received. Others said they could not locate records. A few schools could not be located. Even Lyons' staff could not find the Progressive Theological Seminary, a school Lyons said received $2,500.

Still, many in the convention have taken Lyons' claims on faith. Sharion Thurman, vice chairwoman of Lyons' education commission, said in a letter to the Times that Lyons has indeed directed $2-million to black colleges.

But in an interview, she acknowledged that she has no way of knowing that. Asked if she believes the $2-million figure, she said, "I'm going to be equivocal on that. I'm not going to say yea or nay."

This much is clear: Most of the denomination's education money has gone to American Baptist College in Nashville, which is owned and operated by the convention.

Lyons said the school has received $1,227,336 during his tenure -- nearly three times as much as the other schools combined.

"That would probably be a reasonable figure," said the Rev. Bernard LaFayette, president since 1992. "His contribution has been consistent."

Each month, the convention sends between $25,000 and $50,000 to the school, LaFayette said. The college had 40 students at its summer session and serves hundreds through its extension program.

Lyons says his support to the school included more than $475,000 for repairs on school buildings.

"The buildings were about condemned by the codes people," Lyons said. The convention's most recent annual report elaborated: American Baptist College's Griggs Hall was "almost closed by the city due to plumbing and heating violations. President Lyons was able to avoid the closure."

But officials from Nashville's departments of buildings, codes, plumbing and heating said they could find no record of a recent citation against the college, much less a threatened closure.

Told that, Lafayette said formal citations weren't issued because the college made the necessary repairs to the heating, air-conditioning and plumbing system.

The college struggles to raise the $2-million a year it needs to operate, he said.

The mostly white Southern Baptist Convention, which traditionally gave the college $300,000 a year, withdrew its support in May, saying it wanted to spend its money on other things.

"Dr. Lyons has been consistently supportive, but we need more," LaFayette said. "It has not been enough. We have to get money directly from individual churches and donors."

Donations short, missing

Alabama's Selma University has also been a major beneficiary of convention gifts

"I poured money into that school trying to save it. I put it in there," Lyons said.

Lyons poured in less than he said, according to Carter, the interim president. He said the school has received $60,000 during Lyons' administration -- $157,000 less than the figure Lyons gave.

The college continues to operate -- barely. It has lost its accreditation and now has 50 students. Carter said he spends much of his time "on top of or underneath buildings," trying to fix leaks and other problems.

Two other institutions said the donations they got from the convention were significantly smaller than what Lyons reported. Florida Memorial College, in Dade County, was the beneficiary of a $25,000 gift, spokeswoman Retha Boone-Davis said.

That's $15,000 less than the sum Lyons mentioned. Boone-Davis said it was possible that Lyons' figure included money that came to the school through the state Baptist convention.

Lyons also said the convention gave Virginia University of Lynchburg $13,000. But university president Elisha Hall said Lyons promised only $5,000, to be paid over five years.

The good news for the college: within two years, it received all $5,000. "We were so thankful to get that, and so grateful to him," Hall said.

Others were not as grateful. Several black colleges said they received no money from the convention, even though Lyons said they did.

Lyons said Meridian (Miss.) Baptist Seminary got $2,500, but president David Lee Simmons said the money never came. Another Mississippi school, Natchez Junior College, didn't receive the donation Lyons said he sent, according to David Matthews, president of the Baptist group that operates the institution.

The Rev. Wilson Fallin Jr., president of Birmingham-Easonian Baptist Bible College in Alabama, is still waiting for a gift from the convention.

"We are on the budget to receive money, but as of yet we have not received it. Maybe it is forthcoming," he said. Fallin, historian for the National Baptist Convention USA, is a member of Lyons' Cabinet.

Lyons acknowledged that "every school that we have embraced in our budget we haven't necessarily paid yet."

Accounting for the money

Some people inside the National Baptist Convention USA are as baffled as the college presidents about which institutions will get money, and when

After his election in 1994, Lyons appointed the College and Seminary Education Commission to oversee the convention's relationships with colleges. The commission has met only three times since then. Its members have never seen records of the convention's gifts.

"You know how it is when you're in power. Sometimes you don't want to let other folks have a piece of it because then somebody else gets some of your decision-making ability," said the Rev. George L. McFoulon of St. Louis, chairman of the commission.

Asked what the commission does, McFoulon said, "Not much. . . . We need more teeth."

Thurman, McFoulon's vice chairwoman, said the commission has begun to get some. In a letter to the Times, she said colleges must now follow strict guidelines to get money from the convention.

Schools will ask the commission for money and it will make recommendations to the president and the board, she said.

Thurman wrote that the commission is now "fully operable," but one member reached by the Times didn't know that. The Rev. Theodore H. Bryson, of Nashville, said he has attended just one meeting and has never contacted the institution he was assigned to oversee.

"My participation has been minimal," he said.

For Thurman, who lives in St. Petersburg and attends Lyons' church, any examination of Lyons' giving is unwelcome. She wrote a letter threatening to sue the Times if it published an article about "the giving (or not giving) of monies to our schools. . . .

"Please understand that to persist in this storyline is to court a libel suit," she said.

The Gibbs High School teacher went on:

"Contrary to white people's point of view, the best people to deal with black people are black people. We do know our people, and we can best handle us. Unfortunately, many whites still have that slave-master mentality. . . . Therefore, you (and the rest of your white people) tend to think you have to give us advice. . . .

"Well, you may step back now. As a matter of fact, step out of the picture altogether."

Lyons has other concerns. He said the money he has sent to black colleges came from two places: passing the plate at convention meetings and making deals with corporations.

The deals with banks, auto makers and phone companies were controversial because Lyons didn't tell the convention what he was doing and because he took large commissions.

But the deals also brought hundreds of thousands to the education fund, he said. He said he even handed over $100,000 of his own commissions to the schools.

Lyons said this week that he won't be making any more deals; they are too controversial. That won't be good for the schools, he said.

Gifts to black colleges, he said, "will be greatly reduced."


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