Museum puts faces, names to struggle for justice

Michael Olesker

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REGINA Wright Bruce arrives from a distance of 42 years. She wears a smile of spiritual wonder. She stands in this throng of delighted people at the grand opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and her voice carries through the place like an anthem.

"Did you see my picture?" she asks.

She is a retired Baltimore schoolteacher, and her voice rings out as if someone has just announced the first day of summer vacation. She belongs to history now. She takes you through this room and that, past images of Thurgood Marshall and Parren Mitchell, past Ethel Ennis and Cab Calloway, past Lenny Moore and Buddy Young, until she arrives at a huge photograph on a wall, in the spring of 1963, inside the place that used to be called the Baltimore City Jail.

"That's me," she says happily.

She belongs with the great ones. She's standing in the photograph with her sister, Claudine Allen, who's now an attorney instead of a defendant. They were students at Morgan State back then. They're part of a group of maybe 20 young women at the jail, all in prison garb, all of them gathered around a copy of the day's Afro American newspaper, whose front-page headline reads: "218 Students Arrested - $90,000 Bail Set for 150."

Bruce spent 10 days behind bars that spring for the crime of trying to be treated like a citizen. In that distant time, these young women asked for the simplest of courtesies and were denied, and turned those denials into a history now celebrated at the city's newest museum.

The place opened over the weekend, and it is thrilling: for black people who see a history that was ignored for so long, and for white people who see a history many wished to deny for the longest time, and for everyone who cherishes the human triumphs that arrive from the seemingly smallest gestures.

"The Northwood shopping center," Regina Wright Bruce says now. She has weaved her way through several museum rooms, along various threads of history. Here's Pennsylvania Avenue, when jazz filled the air all night long, and there's the Royal Theater and Billie Holiday lapsing her way into a song and Chick Webb turning his drumsticks into a blur. Here's Bishop Robinson taking command of a police department, and Herman Williams a fire department, and Kurt Schmoke an entire city. Here's Ben Carson, bringing life to an operating room, and Bea Gaddy taking lives off the meanest streets.

The museum reminds us: They did not arrive from nowhere.

"My brother," Bruce says, looking at herself in jail in that spring of 1963 when so much of the state remained segregated and so many would protest it. "He wanted to get a haircut in the Northwood shopping center. My sister wanted to go to the movies. They couldn't get in. So one day my sister says, 'Come on, we're going to the movies.' I said, 'I don't have money for the movies.' She said, 'Don't worry, you're not going to the movies, you're going to jail.'"

She shakes her head in wonder. They were so young then, and braver than they knew. She stares at the photograph and remembers a name: her friend Marcia Hazelton. A jailbird then, a school principal in California now. All of them at the Baltimore City Jail that year, acquiring full citizenship by insisting on it.

The museum tells those stories, and many more. Here's a replica of the slave ships, with chained bodies jammed into a darkened hold. Here's a wanted poster, dated April 9, 1804. It says a $50 reward is offered for a runaway slave "named Harry, a stout, well-made fellow, 20 years of age, five-feet-five, lightish complexion, who stammers when spoken to." One Richard Disney, of Anne Arundel County, wishes "Harry" returned to him before his human property reaches Pennsylvania.

We know pieces of other stories, whose backgrounds are filled in. There's Anne Brown, a graduate of Douglass High, immortalized in the title role of the original production of Porgy and Bess. But how many know the rest of her story, how she refused to sing before segregated audiences, and was warned she would be blacklisted if she refused - and how she stood her ground?

Over the weekend, crowds stood in line for nearly an hour in broiling heat to get into the new place. At the packed opening, part of the experience was not only the exhibits, but watching people's reaction to them, a mix of pride and wonder.

Standing in front of that 1963 photograph, Regina Wright Bruce remembered how it was when she had to go to jail in order to go to the movies.

"Oh, the jail," she says now. "You learned a lot there."

"Like what?" somebody asks.

"Like that's a place you didn't want to be," she says. "There were murderers in there, and forgers, and prostitutes. We sang spirituals every night in our cells. The other women would yell at us, 'Shut up!' But then, after a while, I think they started understanding."

It was the start of understanding for an entire country, wrestling with its conscience and a dreadful piece of its history. So much of Maryland's part in it is captured magnificently at the new museum.
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