Thursday, November 15, 2001

Meet the Freedom Center's executive director

Crew's opportunity: Bringing history to life

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WASHINGTON — The museum that displays Lincoln's top hat, the Star-Spangled Banner and the desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence also has a place for a picture of a rather ordinary American, Rufus Franklin Crew.

        “This is my grandfather, right here,” Spencer R. Crew says of the man he never met, a black man who left the South for opportunities in the North in a 20th-century migration that reshaped American society.

[photo] Spencer R. Crew begins work today as the executive director and chief executive of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which will be built atop a parking garage south of Third Street, between Vine and Walnut.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Today, 52-year-old Spencer Crew embraces a new opportunity himself. He leaves as head of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History to become executive director and chief executive officer of Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

        It will be the largest museum in the country dedicated to the secret movement of slaves north to freedom, and a centerpiece of plans for Cincinnati's revitalized riverfront. Ground breaking is scheduled for next year, with the opening in 2004.

        Like the opportunity his grandfather pursued, this one is not without risk.

        Dr. Crew invested 20 years at America's flagship history museum, the last nine as director. The museum, which drew 6.3 million visitors last year, has a collection of 3 million objects, a staff of 400 and a $50 million annual budget.

        He joins a start-up with lofty goals: to be a nationally prominent institution that applies the lessons of history to modern-day issues. The Freedom Center has raised $65 million of its $110 million goal, but still faces questions about sustaining operations over the long term.

        “What you're getting is one of the best historians and museum leaders in the country,” says Lonnie G. Bunch, president of the Chicago Historical Society. He is a friend who worked with Dr. Crew for 12 years at the Smithsonian.

        John Pepper, chairman of Procter & Gamble Co. and the Freedom Center's capital campaign co-chair, helped lure Dr. Crew here. He says landing someone of his stature is “a home run. The fact that he would choose to come here and make this happen says a lot about (the Freedom Center's) national significance.”

        What it says about Spencer Crew is not so readily apparent.

        So know this: Although he is passionate about African-American history and the Freedom Center's potential, he would have passed up the opportunity if he didn't believe it was in his family's best interest.

Family first

        Family always comes first.

        Earlier this year, a former member of Dr. Crew's van pool asked him to speak at a chamber of commerce banquet in tiny Newcomerstown, Ohio. He gladly accepted. “It's near Cleveland, so it gave me a chance to go back and see family. Any excuse you get to come back to your home, you do that.”

[photo] Spencer Crew's wife, Sandy, is an assistant principal at an elementary school near their home in Columbia, Md. She'll join her husband in the middle of the school year.
(GNS photo)
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        Cleveland is where his grandfather settled in 1927 after finding it difficult to earn a living as a railroad and grocery worker in Atlanta, and before that, at a South Carolina sawmill.

        The family was well established in Cleveland by the time Spencer was born in 1949. He attended the city's public schools until sixth grade, when his family moved to Orange, an east-side suburb.

        He was an excellent student, but found little to like about history until a 10th grade teacher showed how it could be used to tell stories and to place events in a broader context. It became his favorite subject.

        No one in his family stressed the importance of education more than his grandmother, who probably didn't finish high school but always made her expectations clear. “It wasn't a question of if you're going to college,” Dr. Crew says, “it was which college are you going to.”

        His brother and sister became social workers. One cousin, a psychiatrist; another, chancellor of New York City public schools.

        Young Spencer expected to enroll in an Ohio college until his high school counselor nudged him toward several Ivy League schools, including Brown University. A visit to the Providence, R.I., school sealed his decision.

        His mother, a nurse, and his father, a chemist in the paint industry, knew it would be a financial sacrifice. But they agreed to foot the bill. Father told son: “All I expect is that when you have kids old enough to go to college, you will send them, and you won't complain.”

        His father also advised him to forgo history in favor of a college major that would get him a job. But after flirting with international relations, he was drawn to African-American history, which was coming into vogue in the late '60s. Spencer Crew began discovering stories he'd never known.

        At Brown, then Rutgers, he concentrated on urban history, the development of cities and black communities in cities. The focus was less on movers and shakers and more on everyday people and groups whose voices hadn't been heard.

        After college he taught at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County for a couple of years, then learned the National Museum of American History was looking to add staff. Dr. Crew took a job that was supposed to last one year.

        “I got hooked on it, and what was going to be one year turned into 20,” he says.

Dignified, scholarly

        Dr. Crew steps off an elevator on the second floor of the National Museum of American History, and heads west. He's tall and slim — he rises at 5 most mornings to jog — and wears a goatee and glasses, which do nothing to detract from his dignified, scholarly appearance. He could pass for a man 10 years younger.

        He stops at “Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915-1940,'' the exhibit that includes the photo of his grandfather.

    • Occupation: Executive director and chief executive officer, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. He spent 20 years at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, where he was named acting director in 1992 and director in 1994.
    • Born: Jan. 7, 1949, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He was raised in Cleveland.
    • Home: Columbia, Md. In the process of relocating to Cincinnati.
    • Family: Married 30 years to Sandy Crew, an assistant principal at an elementary school in Maryland; she will join Dr. Crew in Cincinnati mid-way through the school year. A daughter, Alika, 23, a dental student at the University of Pennsylvania; a son, Adom, 19, a sophomore at Brown University.
    • Education: Bachelor's degree in American history, Brown University, 1971; master's in American history, Rutgers University, 1973; doctorate in American history, Rutgers, 1979.
    • Professional activities: Recently completed six-year term as Brown University trustee; president, National Council for History Education; member, Maryland Commission for an African American Museum; member, public history committee of the American Historical Society; advisory board, Independence Visitor Center, Philadelphia; board member, National History Day.
    People can meet Spencer R. Crew, new executive director and CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, at the following public information meetings. Exhibit plans also will be discussed.
    • 6:30 p.m. Nov. 28, Northern Kentucky University, University Center Ballroom.
    • 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4, Urban League of Greater Cincinnati.
    • 5:30 p.m. Dec. 6, Christ Church Cathedral, downtown.
    Dr. Crew also will speak at two Freedom Friday events Dec. 7. The one-hour forums, which will focus on using history to heal interracial wounds, are noon at the visitors center in Fifth Third Bank Center, Fountain Square, and 7 p.m. at United Community Christian Church in Covington.
    Information: 412-6900.
        But there are many more stories here, and Dr. Crew knows them well. As curator for the exhibit, which opened in 1987, he was involved in all aspects of its creation.

        “"Field to Factory' transformed Spencer,” says Mr. Bunch, his former colleague. “It allowed the world to recognize what talent he had.”

        It broke new ground by broaching the difficult subject of race in a mainstream museum, Mr. Bunch says. What's more, Dr. Crew couldn't rely on a vast array of artifacts to tell the story; relatively few historical African-American objects exist, a limitation that also will be felt at the Freedom Center.

        But Dr. Crew, working with the exhibit designer, found other ways to tell the migration story such as oral histories, photographs, video, and a recreated train station with separate entrances for “white” and “colored.”

        “One of the most important things museums do is legitimize people's culture,” Mr. Bunch says. “Spencer's work helped people realize that even though there may be a paucity of artifacts, you still can tell stories by being creative.”

        Dr. Crew's style reflects his personality, colleagues say. “He is what he appears: honest, warm, friendly, intelligent, committed,” says Harold Closter, senior management adviser in the Smithsonian's Office of National Programs. He worked closely with Dr. Crew for seven years.

        “He can also be a very forceful person, and very direct. You don't have to worry about interpreting what he says.”

        Vanessa Broussard Simmons, supervisory archivist at the museum, was undecided on a career 21 years ago when she studied under then-Professor Crew at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He encouraged her to pursue museum work. Eventually, he hired her.

        She once said she didn't know how to repay him.

        “There is one thing you can do,” he told her. “Help someone else along the way.”

        But recent controversies have rocked the museum, and morale has suffered. Much of the criticism has been directed at Lawrence Small — Dr. Crew's boss — who became secretary of the Smithsonian almost two years ago.

        Historians and curators inside and outside the museum have complained that Mr. Small is allowing museum donors to have too much say about exhibit content.

        “I was certainly caught in the middle (between) the staff and the feelings they had about the central administration,” Dr. Crew says.

        “Part of it is people struggle with change. They struggle with the idea that (this museum) has to go outside to donors.”

        He says he remains on good terms with Mr. Small. But he acknowledges that the change in administration allowed him to think differently about job offers.

        “I don't see myself running away from anything,” he says. “I see myself going to a terrific new opportunity and an institution I think is going to have a major impact on the country.”

Children in college

        Weeknights are the best time to catch Sandy and Spencer Crew at home in the fall. Weekends are spent traveling to their son's soccer games.

        Adom Crew, 19, plays for Brown University, where he is a sophomore in pre-medicine. The Crews' daughter, Alika, attends dental school at the University of Pennsylvania.

        True to the promise made to his father, Dr. Crew is paying for his children's education without complaint.

        “A lot of what both of us do (relates) to the kind of world we want our children to be involved in,” Mrs. Crew says, “and (the belief) that what we do on a daily basis should have some impact on that world.”

        She is assistant principal at an elementary school five minutes from their Columbia, Md., home. The bedroom community is about 35 miles north of Washington, D.C., which is where she was raised.

        Some Freedom Center officials thought Mrs. Crew's close East Coast ties might doom their chances of hiring Dr. Crew. The couple visited Cincinnati in August to learn more about the project.

        “He wanted his wife to be at many of the meetings,” says P&G's Mr. Pepper. “He said, "We make these decisions together.' I liked that.”

        Cincinnati, of course, was still reeling from the aftermath of April's riots. But Mrs. Crew says she was impressed with the city's response to immediate concerns and long-range needs.

        “What struck me,” Dr. Crew says, “was just how open and friendly people were ... in ways you don't always find in other cities.”

        The Freedom Center was perhaps an easier sell.

        “He was playing back our mission very quickly, better than we were,” Mr. Pepper chuckles. “He articulated so well what we want to achieve, which is to use history as a forum for people to think and (discuss) how we act today.”

        Dr. Crew had impressed Ed Rigaud, the Freedom Center president, when they met at a conference several years earlier. “Wow, what a smart man,” Mr. Rigaud recalls thinking. When the center's first director, John Fleming, left late in 2000, Mr. Rigaud immediately thought of Dr. Crew.

        “I was willing to give him any level of responsibility he wanted, up to and including my job,” Mr. Rigaud says. “And he knew that. But what he really wanted was to work together on it.”

        Mr. Rigaud primarily will handle “outside” issues such as fund-raising, while Dr. Crew deals with “inside” facets such as exhibits, research, education and operations.

        In the end, Sandy and Spencer Crew's decision turned most on one factor.

        “The issue for us always is, what do you do to help the family,” Dr. Crew says. “Not just for your own generation, but for the next.”


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