Marylanders well represented in national African-American museum

For The Baltimore Sun
Historic and contemporary Marylanders represented at new national African-American museum.

WASHINGTON — Although their paths crossed more than two centuries ago, Benjamin Banneker — a free black Marylander — and Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third president — were not considered equals because of slavery.

Yet inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, life-sized figures of the two countrymen stand next to each other in the History Gallery, flanked by fellow icons.

Nearby is a stack of 609 bricks etched with names of the enslaved men, women and children that Jefferson owned in his lifetime. On a wall is the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence — "all men are created equal" — which Jefferson largely drafted.

"Banneker wrote a farming almanac and sent it to Jefferson as a gift, with a letter about the inhumanity of slavery," said curator Mary Elliott. Jefferson did reply to the inventor, mathematician, astronomer and surveyor, who is credited with helping map the layout of the nation's capital. "He essentially told Banneker, 'Well, you're smart, but that's not the norm for black people,'" curator Nancy Bercaw said. "He considered him an exception to his race."

The Smithsonian's 19th museum, unveiled on the National Mall in September, boldly defies such false notions. Banneker, born near what's now Ellicott City, is among dozens of Marylanders and Baltimoreans represented in a collection of approximately 40,000 artifacts — some 3,000 of which are now on display.

Objects of local origin include a stone slave auction block from Hagerstown; a pinback button from the Baltimore Elite Giants, a Negro Leagues baseball team; and colorful entertainment placards produced by Baltimore's Globe Poster Printing Corp.

A charred rope evokes the 1931 lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury. An oyster bucket from Chesapeake Bay waterman Ira Wright helps chronicle the region's seafood industry. An antique paper cutter from the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, founded in 1892, was donated by current publisher John "Jake" Oliver.

"Countless African-Americans from Baltimore and throughout Maryland have distinguished themselves, and contributed to our great nation over the centuries," said Robert L. Wilkins, author of the new book "Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100-Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture." "And rightfully, their impact is on prominent display."

In December, Deborah Tulani Salahu-Din, a curatorial affairs specialist and longtime Baltimore resident, provided a tour of galleries filled with period objects, photographs, films and interactive exhibits. The museum — which officials say has welcomed nearly 700,000 visitors — was bustling.

Schoolchildren peeked at a Civil War musket acquired from a Baltimore family. International tourists lingered before a 1918 diploma from the Colored Training School in West Baltimore. A couple skimmed a 1975 copy of the Muhammad Speaks newspaper, donated by a local Muslim family.

In the visual arts gallery, curator Tuliza Fleming showed off paintings such as "Grand Dame Queenie" by Creative Alliance artist-in-residence Amy Sherald. "Behold Thy Son" meditates on the 1955 killing of Emmett Till. Its painter, David Driskell, is a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and a leading authority on African-American art who lives in Hyattsville.

Often, fascinating stories exist behind the artifacts.

There's a lace shawl (circa 1897) that Queen Victoria of England gave to Underground Railroad "conductor" Harriet Tubman. A cast mold captures Baltimore composer Eubie Blake's hands. "Mr. Blake was about 98 at the time. … The artist recalls that he told wonderful stories," said curator Dwandalyn Reece.

There's even a log house built by a manumitted slave in 1875. Curator Paul Gardullo said the Jones-Hall-Sims house from Montgomery County was disassembled, moved and then reconstructed onsite.

Not every item is sizable. Caprece Jackson-Garrett was surprised to learn the tiny "Happy I'm Nappy" button she designed in the '80s to celebrate the natural hair movement had been donated without her knowledge.

"I'd just returned from living in Paris, and I'd peddle my collectibles from the trunk of my car, an open Bible in the passenger's seat," said the Baltimore public-relations specialist.

Decades later, she terms the "cute little face" and empowering slogan an expression of "pure love" promoting Afrocentric identity. "Small acts can lead to mass change."

Cheryl Bailey Solomon rummaged through boxes to locate a red beanie she wore while pledging her college sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.

It's now behind glass in an exhibit on African-American fraternities and sororities, lifetime service organizations collectively known as "The Divine Nine." "I asked around, and lots of people didn't want to part with their paraphernalia," said Solomon, a Coppin State University alumna. "I knew this museum would be spectacular."

Celebrities, families, educational, civic and religious institutions all have places within these walls.

An acetate disc recording of jazz singer Billie Holiday, who grew up in Fells Point, is highlighted in the "Musical Crossroads" gallery. An intricate neckpiece from artist Joyce J. Scott, a Sandtown resident and recently named MacArthur Fellow, sells for $6,000 in the gift shop. Supreme Court Justice and Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall is quoted in the "Making a Way Out of No Way" gallery for his role in the Brown vs. Board of Education school-desegregation case.

Movements get play. Former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume is pictured with activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson during an anti-apartheid demonstration. Contemporary figures such as Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson and writer/social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates and photographer Devin Allen —native sons of Baltimore — are all showcased.

"We did collecting around the recent rallies and protests," said photography curator Aaron Bryant, who hails from Baltimore.

Allen — whose photographs and large-scale media pieces are featured — called his inclusion "crazy" in a good way. "I've watched friends die in the streets, so taking photos saved me," said the self-taught lensman, whose image of police and protesters during the 2015 Freddie Gray unrest landed on the cover of Time magazine.

André Chung, a former Baltimore Sun photographer, contributed the joyful party shot "Groovin'." Robert Houston, a Life photojournalist from Baltimore, captured the Poor People's Campaign envisioned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before King's assassination in 1968.

The curatorial team, most of whom spent years gathering artifacts for the $540 million museum, said they were awed at being entrusted with some of the treasures.

"When I met Dr. Ben Carson, he was excited," Salahu-Din said of the Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon turned presidential candidate turned Cabinet nominee. His scrubs are among his personal items on display in the Community Gallery.

She also sat with Paula Baldwin Whaley, a Baltimore artist and youngest sibling of writer James Baldwin, whose mother hailed from Maryland's Eastern Shore. Literary materials, an oft-stamped U.S. passport and an inkwell belonging to her brother were among the cherished mementos shared.

The late Charlene Hodges-Byrd, a D.C.-born educator with Baltimore relatives, bequeathed a cache of letters, photos, books and memorabilia that date to 1860. One rare image shows abolitionist Frederick Douglass (like Tubman, born on an Eastern Shore plantation) pictured with his grandson.

"The women in her family saved everything, passing it down," said Herbert S. Garten, a Baltimore lawyer who handled the estate, enlisting the aid of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. "She wanted it donated to a museum and preserved to shed light on the lives of African-Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries."

A large number of individuals, companies and groups played roles in developing the museum, created by an act of Congress in 2003. Historian Taylor Branch and Alfred Moss, a University of Maryland professor, were among those who served on a scholarly advisory committee. Donors who gave $1 million or more are acknowledged on a glass wall plaque in the lobby.

The list of benefactors includes the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, Brown Capital Management in Baltimore and the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, named for the East Baltimore native who earned a Harvard law degree and built a multibillion-dollar conglomerate.

Curator Michelle Joan Wilkinson collected such items as Lewis' well-worn briefcase and autobiography, "Why Should White Guys Have all the Fun?"

"He was beloved," said his widow, Loida N. Lewis, who attended the opening with family and friends. The legacy her husband left is already reflected in the downtown Baltimore museum that bears his name, and this takes it to another level. "Now the world can see his success."

If you go

To accommodate demand, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture has introduced a new system for obtaining free entry passes.

A limited number of walk-up passes will be available starting at 1 p.m. on weekdays. Same-day, online, timed passes will be available (starting at 6:30 a.m.) via the museum's website, nmaahc.si.edu/sameday. Noncommercial group visits of 10 or more, including students, can be scheduled up to one year in advance at nmaahc.si.edu/groups.

On Jan. 4, beginning at 9 a.m., the museum will issue advance timed passes for April 2017; passes for May 2017 will be available starting Feb. 1. Details: nmaahc.si.edu or 866-297-4020.

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