Proud and dark moments of Md. history in Lewis, Historical Society exhibits

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Slavery artifacts, a sign for the Hippo and Eubie Blake's cuff links populate new exhibits of Md. history.

Photographs of the Freddie Gray unrest taken by professionals and amateurs. Eubie Blake's celesta and cuff links. A whimsical sign from a decades-old Baltimore gay bar. The door from a building at segregation-era Druid Hill Park.

Just a few of the fascinating items in two modest-sized exhibits that highlight recent acquisitions at Baltimore's leading repositories of local and state history. While the planning and timing of the shows is coincidental, they complement each other nicely.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum's "Now, That's Cool!" display covers centuries of African-American history and culture, using documents, photographs and artifacts that have not previously been presented publicly there.

"What & Why? Collecting at the Maryland Historical Society" likewise gives a wide range of objects, including clothes, paintings and furniture, their first showing. This display of materials dating from the late 1700s to last year highlights the stories behind the donations.

Each exhibit has its own distinctive character and content, but both provide a glimpse into lives famous and regular, objects grand and simple. Both raise weighty issues, balanced with examples of beauty and charm. Both are worth a visit.

'Now, That's Cool!'

Wrapping around an intimate gallery space, its walls painted in shades of harvest gold and green, "Now, That's Cool!" gives off a '70s vibe — a cool look, you might say.

Charles Bethea, director of collections and exhibitions at the Lewis Museum, acknowledges that he encountered a few raised eyebrows when he proposed an exhibit with "cool" in the title, even though it would include items related to slavery and Jim Crow days.

"It's not that [the subject matter] is cool," Bethea says. "I wanted to tell stories that are cool and really intriguing."

Bethea sees the exhibit as a way to get young museum visitors, especially, interested in history and the relevance behind the items. He makes this point with one item in particular.

Alongside a legal filing from 1812, when Peter Brengle of Frederick sued in court after purchasing an "unsound Negro named Harry, who after the sale died," a text in the display case poses a hypothetical: What if you bought a TV, took it home and found out it didn't work. Would you return it and demand your money back?

"I want young people to ask themselves how they would feel about that," Bethea says, "and then think about how during slavery a person's life was valued only as property."

The exhibit includes two carte-de-visites of Frederick Douglass, the revered abolitionist; one from 1889 is autographed — the museum's first signed Douglass photograph.

Bethea has donated a couple of books from his personal collection that give added context to the photos. These books weren't owned by Douglass, but their texts are ones he held dear.

One of them, from 1817, is "The Columbian Orator," which, as the accompanying display label explains, Douglass first consulted at age 13 and used to hone the oratorical skills he would later employ against "the religious advocates of slavery."

Particularly rich in 19th-century material, the exhibit includes the museum's first original photo of the Rev. Josiah Henson, who was born a slave at Port Tobacco and cheated out of freedom after he paid for his own release. His eventual escape and work for the Underground Railroad were recounted in an autobiography that influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

There's a lot of history, too, packed into a small display of tombstone pieces carved around 1850 by Sebastian "Boss" Hammond. This stonecutter's craftsmanship earned him enough money to buy his freedom in 1839, and that of his wife and 11 children by 1857. Examples of his work can still be spotted in cemeteries in Carroll and Frederick counties.

Of more recent vintage comes a peeling door from a restroom or changing room in Druid Hill Park, uncovered and donated by the City of Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks. The sign on that door says it all: "White Men."

As contrast to such sobering objects, there are two uplifting abstracts by contemporary African-American artists, gifts of former Baltimore Museum of Art director Doreen Bolger: Joyce Scott's "Coronet Explodes," which really does suggest an explosion of gold, red and orange; and Sam Gilliam's "Diary #2," spiced by bold red stripes across a sea of blue, white and yellow.

But a small item nearby, one of the exhibit's most sobering, brings the past back sharply into focus. It's a broadside from Oct. 23, 1802, offering $40 for the return of two runaway slaves who had worked at the Catoctin Furnace in what was then called Frederick-Town.

"Negro Len," said to be about 25, is "remarkably well-made," with "pretty large eyes and mouth," and "when spoke to answers quick." "Negro Harry," about 30, is "a little fellow" who "wears his wool combed," "plays on the fiddle," is "sensible and talkative." The advert doesn't include information on what Harry was wearing when he escaped, because the owner "cannot describe his clothes."

'What and Why'

"People have a lot of faith in us," says Alexandra Deutsch, chief curator at the Maryland Historical Society. This exhibit of material donated over the past few years illustrates how the museum has earned that trust.

The eclectic show includes a fresh look at an event that may seem to have been thoroughly covered already — the unrest over the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 — as seen through the eyes of professional and amateur photographers, some using cellphones or tablets.

They responded to the society's open invitation to submit material to Preserve the Baltimore Uprising, a public repository of photos, video and stories. More than 12,000 images have been received so far, along with oral histories and even a song. (The repository website is baltimoreuprising2015.org.)

Joe Tropea, digital projects coordinator and curator of films and photographs at the society, created a 10-minute video slide show for the "What and Why" exhibit, sampling the work of nine photographers (one of them, Theo Anthony, also has unrest-related work in his exhibit as a 2016 Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist at the Baltimore Museum of Art).

The selections Tropea chose capture more of peaceful protest than violence, conveying the sense of coming together that was also part of those tense days.

"Overall, this is a corrective to all the violent images that the media kept showing — and still show, like MSNBC just did," using riot footage misleadingly labeled "Happening Now," Tropea says.

The society's exhibition manager, Paul Rubenson, donated damaged bricks, a melted tail pipe and other objects he gathered the morning after an unfinished senior center was burned. The items are stark, but not Rubenson's motivation. The night before, he had found his path blocked as he drove his kids home early from school:

"I am white. The local citizens, African-American, guided us and other hapless drivers through their back alleys toward home," he writes in the exhibit text. "The next day I picked up these reminders of what I experienced. … I hope future generations can perceive the events as I did."

The dominant fixture at the start of the exhibit is the grinning image of a flirtatious hippopotamus, the trademark of the Club Hippo, the gay club in Mount Vernon that closed last year after more than four decades. It was sent to the Society by owner Chuck Bower on the last day of occupancy.

"We are laying the groundwork for an LGBT collection," Deutsch says. "We don't collect just what people think we collect. We're dedicated to the history of Maryland, and that includes everything."

That broad view is reflected in a room of clothing that includes an elephant-motif outfit worn and donated by former Rep. (and former Baltimore Sun reporter) Helen Delich Bentley.

Two dresses provide a mini-family history — a cotton wrapper from around 1880, worn by a Frederick woman whose granddaughter would use leftover fabric from that dress to make one in 1952 for her daughter to wear on the Jewish High Holidays.

Looking out from a case with penetrating eyes is an African-American rag doll from the late 1800s. Across the room is a noble chair made by John Needles in 1844, connected to the Whig convention held in Baltimore that year that nominated Henry Clay for president.

A feel-good component of the exhibit comes from material owned by the ebullient Baltimore-born Eubie Blake, composer of many a popular song and the groundbreaking 1921 show "Shuffle Along" (a musical about its creation is on Broadway now).

Elliot Hoffman, who was Blake's New York-based lawyer, and his wife, Nancy, donated several items this year from their longtime friend that they used to display in their living room. Blake's celesta — a keyboard instrument with a tinkling sound — and the payment book for it are here, along with monogrammed cuff links, a silk scarf and cigarette holder.

And there's a handwritten letter the composer sent to the Hoffmans that quotes George M. Cohan's famous line, "My mother thanks you, my father thanks you" — a charming touch from a charming man.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Now, That's Cool!" runs through Dec. 31 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, 830 E. Pratt St. Admission is $6 to $8. Call 443-263-1800, or go to lewismuseum.org.

"What & Why? Collecting at the Maryland Historical Society" runs through June 30, 2017 at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. Admission is $6 to $9. Call 410-685-3750, or go to mdhs.org.

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