Witnesses to Freddie Gray protest submit nearly 1,000 works to Md. Historical Society

What do the Freddie Gray-related photos tell us about what happened to Baltimore?

In hindsight, the photograph taken on April 25 at Camden Yards seems to forecast everything that happened such a short time later.

In the bottom center is the head of a little boy, perhaps 8 years old. Though his mouth and chin are outside the frame, you can tell by his downcast eyes and the slant of his brows just how angry he is. Directly behind him stand three Baltimore police officers, their hands on their hips. You can't see their eyes because they're obscured by dark glasses, but their mouths are grim.

And from the right, someone is unfurling a black, green and red flag adopted by some African-American groups.

In that image shot by Jerome Freeman, a 25-year-old Columbia resident, the divide between the police and the people protesting the death of Freddie Gray is evident at a glance. It seems almost inevitable that what began as peaceful demonstrations are about to erupt.

And it's one of nearly 1,000 images, oral histories and videos taken so far by everyday citizens documenting those transformative weeks in Baltimore that have been submitted to the Maryland Historical Society.

This week marks the beginning of the second phase of the innovative project, which the historical society is operating with the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to collect and preserve an online history of the unrest created not by professional pundits and journalists, but by the people who were there.

Historical society staff began thinking how to respond to the upheaval on April 27, as staff members watched hundreds of protesters walk past the museum on Centre Street.

"Freddie Gray's death may be a watershed moment in the history of Baltimore," said the museum's president, Burt Kummerow. "For the first time in human memory, every man and woman can be their own chronicler."

The most famous of these photographers is West Baltimore resident Devin Allen, whose image of a man running down the street in front of a line of baton-wielding Baltimore police officers made the cover of Time magazine. Allen's first solo show will open July 10 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

In early May, the historical society asked the public to submit photos and other materials documenting the demonstrations, unrest and clean-up efforts.

The response was so overwhelming that within a day, "our email system blew up," said Joe Tropea, the society's digital projects coordinator. The museum has posted the photos and recordings at baltimoreuprising2015.org, a website created by Denise Meringolo, an associate professor and director of the public history program at UMBC.

In the project's second phase, which begins this week, the museum will conduct workshops teaching educators and the public how to download digital materials directly to the project website. For now, the exhibit is not curated. All submissions are accepted.

"I decided to establish a site that allows people to participate directly in the act of collecting," Meringolo said. "When you study social movements from the past, sometimes what's missing are the experiences and perceptions of the people who were in that moment. You find the official reports, but it's very difficult to get a sense of what that protest was like viscerally from the ground view."

It's hard to imagine any history of the upheaval that would exclude the voice of 18-year-old Laurell Glenn.

In her oral history posted on the website, Glenn says she feels torn between her sympathy for the protesters and her love for her cousin, a Baltimore City police officer and the single mother of three. Not a day goes by that Glenn doesn't worry about her cousin's safety.

"I'll continue to protest," Glenn says.

"I want my cousin to know that I respect that she has chosen to try to make our city safe. But to do that, we need to build a better relationship between the police and the people of our community. This is the civil rights movement of my generation, and I want my voice in it."

The project, which may never exist in any form but online, is an example of a trend in which museums worldwide are beginning to redefine what a museum is and to conceive of their institutions as more than just warehouses of cultural treasures enclosed by four walls and located on a particular street.

Tropea said the historical society wanted to avoid making the mistake it made in the 1960s. Instead of waiting passively for materials to be donated, the staff decided to proactively collect documents while they were t fresh and available.

"People call us all the time asking for materials from the civil rights movement," Tropea said.

"For whatever reason, we have a lot of images from the 1940s through the early 1960s, but not much after 1965 and nothing at all from the1968 uprising, which is what people usually want when they ask for civil rights materials."

Kummerow points out that during the past 75 years, a major shift has occurred in the way historic events are recorded.

In the 1930s, Kummerow said, news accounts of battles were accompanied by illustrations. In the 1960s, images of war were shot by professional photographers working for newspapers and magazines. But in the past decade, smartphones have evolved enough to potentially turn everyone into historians.

Twenty-two-year-old Simone Varano is a former resident of Prince George's County who began confronting the racial divide in her own family after an unarmed African-American teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo.

"My mom is Italian and my father is black," Varano said, "and some of the comments made by my mom's side of the family after Ferguson were eye-opening."

When tensions broke out so close to home in Baltimore, Varano, a freelance videographer, knew she had to capture them firsthand. A collection of her photos is included on the baltimoreuprising website.

"On the first night of the curfew, a protester was yelling at police," she said. "They Maced him in the face, grabbed him by the hair and dragged him to the ground. The officers were laughing and holding him by his legs.

"Thinking about it even now is traumatizing for me as a black woman. I was raised to believe that if I acted in a certain way, I'd be fine."

David Taft Terry is an assistant professor at Morgan State University, where he also heads the museum studies program. A few miles away, Colette Veasey-Cullors is on the photography faculty at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Both the historian and the artist were struck by the lack of political context in the photos on the baltimoreuprising website. They wish the images collected so far had explored the political and social factors that sparked the unrest.

But Terry finds a hopefulness in the collection as a whole that heartens him.

"I think these photographs are optimistic in a way," he said.

"The diversity of the types of people represented in the protests reminds me of Baltimore in the 1950s and the 1960s, when there was a coming together of individuals. Some had their own agendas and interests. But, they came together nonetheless to elevate the struggle for equality into a true civil rights movement."

For her part, Veasey-Cullors was struck by the poignancy of the self-affirmation expressed by the images. As she put it:

"The protests were an opportunity for those individuals who have been overlooked and marginalized to get together collectively out on the street and to scream at the tops of their lungs, 'I'm here and I matter.'

"The images reflect people saying, in a way they've never been able to say before, 'It doesn't matter where I live or what my income is. I'm still a human being, and I'm tired of getting cast aside.'"

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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