Beginning this weekend, their stories and the stories of their descendants - the men and women of African heritage who have lived, toiled, suffered, thrived and died in a land sometimes called the Free State - will be told in a gleaming new $34 million museum on the eastern edge of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Named for a pioneering black businessman and philanthropist, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, at 830 E. Pratt St., will open officially tomorrow. The celebration, which will include remarks by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, will culminate in a "quilt-untying" ceremony featuring 20-inch fabric squares created by schoolchildren and community groups from throughout the state.
Officials have high hopes for the museum: that it will attract more than 150,000 visitors annually, and that within the first year its endowment will nearly double to $10 million and its membership will swell to 20,000.
This weekend's gala event comes at a time of feast and famine for African-American history museums. On one hand, more than a dozen new museums are planned, are under construction or have recently opened, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which is scheduled to open in 2013 or later; the U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va., to open in 2007; and the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which opened in August.
On the other, some African-American museums, including well-established facilities in Philadelphia and Detroit, are experiencing severe budget crises and attendance shortfalls.
But in Baltimore, the man who has spent the past 11 years waiting for the museum's opening is confident visitors will like - and support - what they see.
"Let me quote the Rev. Harold Carter, when he first came in to view the museum," says George L. Russell Jr., who was appointed in 1994 by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer to spearhead the museum-building effort. "He said, 'I would have been happy with much less. This is just overwhelming.'"
It's easy to see how the commanding red, black and gold structure impressed the pastor of Baltimore's New Shiloh Baptist Church. Even from the outside, the new, five-story building displays a celebratory nobility befitting the stories it houses of famous Marylanders from Benjamin Banneker and Harriet Tubman to Billie Holiday and Thurgood Marshall.
"You can't tell the domestics' stories through Thurgood Marshall," says Sandy Bellamy, who has been the museum's executive director since June 2003. "There are many stories that complement the stories of Benjamin Banneker, of Harriet Tubman. There are many experiences that make up the story of African-Americans in Maryland."
But after the hoopla fades, museum administrators say, the hard work will continue. Over the next few months, they plan to launch an extensive membership drive via the Internet, direct mail and print-media ads, Bellamy says. The goal is to increase membership to 20,000, from the 1,500 individuals and families that have signed on so far.
Bellamy also hopes to increase the museum's endowment to $10 million by the end of the year. Currently $6 million, the endowment includes $5 million donated by the New York-based Reginald F. Lewis Foundation and $1 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Projections call for 300,000 visitors during the museum's first year (fueled by the excitement that surrounds its debut), and 150,000 during its second, says Bellamy. About 45 percent of those visitors will be students - part of the African-American history curriculum that is being implemented in the state's public schools this September. The curriculum, a partnership between the museum and the state Department of Education, ensures African-American studies will be taught in every Maryland public school.
But the new Baltimore museum, the second largest in the country, has a built-in hedge against budgetary problems: guaranteed funding from the state. This year, the museum has an operating budget of $3.5 million, 75 percent of which comes from the state (which also contributed $30 million to the cost of construction). The state's contribution will stay at 75 percent next year but decrease to 50 percent beginning the following year.
Even without that cushion, says Russell, the excitement surrounding the new facility ensures its success.
"There's no question in my mind that this is going to be a national attraction," he says. "The interest that we're getting ... I don't think we're going to have a problem with visitors."
The 8,500-square-foot exhibit space is divided into three themed areas. "Building Maryland, Building America" focuses on the accomplishments of the African-American labor force, including the men and women who toiled on the water, in tobacco cultivation and in ironworking.
"Things Hold, Lines Connect" traces the struggle for civil rights from the days of slavery - when African-Americans, in the words of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864) "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect" - through emancipation and the struggles of the 1960s.
A section titled "Strength of Mind" celebrates the contributions of black Marylanders to the arts and education. It includes text boards that quote correspondence between Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson, in which Banneker refutes Jefferson's contention that blacks are inherently inferior. Banneker, as reflected in one of Jefferson's letters, persuaded the author of the Declaration of Independence to reconsider his racial prejudices.
As museum staffers bustle to complete installation, David Terry, the museum's director of collections and exhibitions, pauses for a moment of thought. Though pleased by the museum's scope, he acknowledges it doesn't tell the story of every African-American. Just the Marylanders.
"This is simply the story," he says, "of how this one group of people in one part of the country got here."
And then he smiles, realizing there's nothing simple about the story at all. Which is why an entire museum has been built to tell it.