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The new look of African-American history

We know the names. Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, transporting more than 300 slaves to freedom. Frederick Douglass was an ardent spokesman for the abolition movement, and Thurgood Marshall helped end legal segregation as the first African-American to sit on the Supreme Court.

The full histories of these Maryland-born civil rights legends are rich in detail and poignancy. Now, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which opens Saturday, is telling their stories - along with those of countless others - to give visitors a greater understanding of African-Americans' contributions to the country.

"I always ask people what America would be like without people like Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall," said Sandy Bellamy, the museum's executive director. "Certainly, it would be a very different country."

Almost 12 years of planning, two years of construction and about $50 million - $31 million of which was given by the state - went into making the museum a reality. In 2002, the museum received a gift of $5 million from the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation - the foundation of the Baltimore native who became the first African-American to own a Fortune 500 corporation - to support the museum's endowment and to fund educational programs.

The museum's winding third-floor exhibit path leads visitors through several centuries, from the Middle Passage that brought Africans across the Atlantic Ocean as slaves to the success of Maryland's black leaders and communities today. The exhibits explore the jobs African-Americans held in constructing the state's buildings and industries, their creative and intellectual contributions and the collective experience black communities share.

"We don't dwell on the tragedy of slavery," said David Terry, the museum's director of collections. "We want to create an appreciation for the context in which African-Americans became Americans."

The displays, which include more than 300 artifacts, focus on the African-American experience in the state. They tell what it was like for black Marylanders to tong oysters out of the Chesapeake Bay, break into sports and the fine arts, enlist in the Union Army to fight in the Civil War, rally against segregation and attain political power.

An interactive exhibit re-creates the experience of the Underground Railroad, while another lets visitors hear black poets speak their own words. A replica of the Ellicott City log cabin belonging to Benjamin Banneker, a mathematician and astronomer, includes a look at his widely read almanac. Read about Billie Holiday's life as a jazz musician and Joe Gans' victory as the first African-American to hold a boxing title.

Another exhibit recounts the journey of the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship that sunk off the coast of Key West in 1700 while transporting 190 Africans from Jamaica to London. The ship's bell, shackles and other items recovered from the wreck are on display through January.

Other stops along the path explore the social influence of black churches and barbershops, which were important forums for the exchange of ideas in communities across the state.

"Everyone, from a seventh-grader to a history Ph.D., will find something they didn't know or gain a different perspective," Terry said. "I think this is a place people will want to visit several times, taking something new away each time."

Saturday's opening at 10 a.m. will feature remarks by Kweisi Mfume, former NAACP president, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele. Morgan State University's choir will perform the "Negro National Anthem."

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, 830 E. Pratt St., opens to the public Saturday. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, but doors will remain open until 7 p.m. this Saturday. Tickets are $5 this weekend. After this weekend, tickets are $8, $6 for senior citizens and students and $5 for children ages 3-11. Children ages 3 and younger are admitted free. Call 443-263- 1800 or visit www.african americanculture.org.


Music at the museum

Performances will take place on two stages outside the museum. Schedule is subject to change.

Saturday

Noon: Return to Goree African Dancers

12:30 p.m.: Groove Stu

1 p.m.: LeRe Dancers

1:30 p.m.: Frederick Douglass Jazz Combo

2 p.m.: Miesha Cherry, spoken word

2:30 p.m.: Heritage Signature Chorale

3 p.m.: Ryan "Tap Kidd" Johnson

4 p.m.: Wayne Jackson Dancers

4:30 p.m.: Milford Mill Academy Choir

5 p.m.: Voices of Northwood

Sunday

11 a.m.: Musuyide African Dance

Noon: Maria Broom, storyteller

1 p.m.: Baltimore Dance Tech

2 p.m.: Living Waters Ministries Praise and Worship Team

2:30 p.m.: JaHipster, spoken word

3 p.m.: St. Veronica's Steel Orchestra

3:30 p.m.: RaynFall Dance

4 p.m.: Sounds of Heaven

4:30 p.m.: Guardian Dancers

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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