Walter E. Fauntroy had been overseas for months when longtime friends gathered on a March evening to discuss the 82-year-old civil rights legend’s worrisome absence and the legal and financial difficulties engulfing him and his wife.
Fauntroy, who helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. plan the 1963 March on Washington and became the District’s first congressional delegate in a century, had just missed a huge gathering in Selma, Ala., to mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the brutal confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that helped spur passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
And where was the retired pastor? His friends have been told that he has been in Dubai, although they don’t know exactly where or what he’s been doing or precisely how long he has been gone. Earlier this month, Fauntroy and his wife of 57 years, Dorothy, filed for bankruptcy protection, and in court documents in that case, a judge quoted Walter Fauntroy as saying that he “is temporarily out of the country and suffered a medical emergency,” without offering any details.
In the offices of the United Black Fund on an avenue in Southeast Washington named for King, an attorney for the Fauntroys, Johnny Barnes, ran through the crises facing the couple, according to two people in attendance.
The urgent problem: The Fauntroy home in Crestwood — where Dorothy Fauntroy, now in her early 80s, still lives and where, friends say, King sat as he and Walter Fauntroy planned the March on Washington — is in danger of foreclosure. According to D.C. Superior Court records, the Fauntroys defaulted on an additional mortgage between 2008 and 2013 and, at one point, owed more than $146,000.
Walter Fauntroy’s legal problems do not end there. He is facing a charge of writing a bad check for $55,000 to an event-planning company that helped put together an ill-fated ball for President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor.
In January 2012, a second bench warrant was issued for Walter Fauntroy to appear in Prince George’s County court to answer the charges, but he has failed to show.
“I know that he was calling various friends and associates to try to get money to come back to the States, and apparently nothing would come through,” said Arthur Reynolds Jr., the attorney handling the case, who said he last spoke with Walter Fauntroy about six months ago. “If he comes back to the United States, I can get the bench warrant recalled.”
At the meeting at the United Black Fund on March 9, the Fauntroys’ friends donated money to help with the mortgage payments, get Dorothy a new washing machine and pay for car repairs, said Joe Madison, a civil rights activist and SiriusXM radio host.
Madison said he and others are upset that they know so little about Walter Fauntroy’s welfare. “No one has ever told us what his mission is in Dubai or . . . why he has been there for two or three years,” he said. “There are some real concerns and worried people. Where is he staying? What is he living on?”
The group agreed to make a public appeal for help this past week but only after assurances that the family had consented.
“He is such an icon nationally, but you also have Mrs. Fauntroy, who is such a dignified woman who has been sort of suffering quietly,” Madison said. “We did not want to do something that could embarrass her. But we wanted to act because her situation is dire.”
Madison and Barry LeNoir, who heads the United Black Fund and also went to the meeting, said they do not know how much money has been raised to relieve the mortgage pressures.
Barnes, who organized the meeting, declined to comment and would not discuss Walter Fauntroy’s whereabouts or circumstances, other than to say that the two frequently communicate and that he “is doing well.”
In the foreclosure case, the Fauntroys have filed counterclaims against the Bank of New York, seeking at least $850,000 for “false, negative information” being declared on their credit report and the “overwhelming, unexpected, unconscionable mortgage level.”
They also said in court papers that when they took out the additional mortgage in 2006, their “capacity” as 72- and 73-year-olds to agree to the loan was “in question.”
Marvin Fauntroy, who said in court documents that he manages many of the business affairs of his parents, could not be reached to comment. Public records indicate that he lives with his mother. Two Washington Post reporters visited the brick home in Northwest Washington three times in the past week, but no one answered the door or responded to a note left there. The Post also could not reach the Fauntroys’ daughter, Melissa Fauntroy.
Raymond Fauntroy, who lives in Miami, told The Post that he didn’t know his brother Walter’s whereabouts. “I wish I knew,” he said. “I would certainly go.”
Michael Fauntroy, who wrote a blog post Thursday expressing concern about his uncle’s whereabouts, said in an interview that he is also worried about the civil rights activist’s reputation.
“This is something very embarrassing for him and the family,” said Michael Fauntroy, a Howard University professor of political science. “There’s always been this notion that my uncle was sitting on a pile of money, but unlike many of his peers in the civil rights movement, he never enriched himself, and he never made any real money.”
Walter Fauntroy is a giant in the District, where he won election in 1971 as the city’s first nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives in almost 100 years. He served for 20 years in Congress, where he helped lead the push for D.C. home rule and chaired the Congressional Black Caucus in the early 1980s.
He ran for mayor in 1990, hoping to lead the city he had helped win political independence, but he lost in the Democratic primary.
A graduate of the Yale University Divinity School, he was pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Shaw for 50 years before retiring in 2009.
Walter Fauntroy has worked on human rights issues overseas in the past. In Congress, he was an outspoken advocate for ending apartheid and later traveled to Africa on humanitarian missions, including with Madison to Sudan.
But he also has been in Africa previously under befuddling circumstances. In 2011, he was in Libya, apparently on a self-styled peace mission, as Moammar Gaddafi’s regime teetered toward collapse. He was briefly detained, along with other Westerners, in an incident that prompted concern for his life.
Madison interviewed Walter Fauntroy on his radio program after the Libyan incident in what was the last direct conversation he had with his old friend. The disjointed exchange didn’t go as expected, Madison said, as Fauntroy described his relationship with Gaddafi and how he had helped get reporters to safety.
“It was such a weird interview,” Madison recalled.
More recently, longtime political allies have noted Walter Fauntroy’s absences not only from the Selma celebration, but also from the funeral for former D.C. mayor Marion Barry and even from a 2013 event honoring Fauntroy that his wife, son and nephew attended.
“There was speculation at the meeting that he may be afraid to come home if he could be arrested and hauled off to jail over the National Harbor event,” Madison said.
Walter Fauntroy had hosted and served as event chairman for the January 2009 African and International Friends Inaugural Ball, held at the Gaylord National Resort.
Promotional materials promised an array of top-rated entertainment, dignitaries and special packages for high-end sponsors, according to a court filing.
But instead of the star-studded celebration, the ball was a mess, absent many of the advertised entertainers and without amenities and even entry for some of the ticketholders.
Filings in a lawsuit over the matter — since settled among the major parties and dismissed against Walter Fauntroy, electronic court records show — include a 2009 e-mail from Fauntroy over the failed ball and attached a personal letter to his creditors addressed to “Dear Fellow Sufferings.”
In the letter, he said he had not done enough to verify the commitments of international delegations for the event and thus “created for you and myself not only a financial debacle and incredible waste of your time but also a serious blow to your own credibility.”
The letter went on to say that he was personally committed to repaying everyone “out of my future earnings, if it takes the rest of my life to honor that pledge.” He also wrote in 2009 that he had begun “a process of traveling abroad to seek help from friends around the world to enable me to keep that pledge.”
Now his friends, Madison said, “need to find a way to convince Reverend Fauntroy that he should come home. That’s an unanswered question: What can we do to get Walter to come home?”
Lynh Bui, Hamil R. Harris and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.