Bridges to the Past

Sun Arts Writer

Day by day, county by county and door by door, Kathryn Coney and her colleagues have gradually accumulated a treasure trove.

Some of the objects they collected have historic significance, while others are intimate and everyday. Some belonged to famous people while others were owned by miners and fishermen.

But all were owned by black people living in the Free State. Taken as a whole, the cache - which forms the permanent collection of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture - reveals this community's rich and layered history.

The $33 million, 82,000-square-foot museum at 830 E. Pratt St. opens to the public Saturday. Most museums are built to house existing collections, but plans were made to build the Lewis Museum before a single object had been acquired to place inside it. Gathering those objects - and their histories - has been Coney's job for the past 21 months.

Coney, who manages the museum's collections, scoured catalogs and architectural magazines. While tracking down leads, she picked kale with a farm family, staged a weekend retreat for black leaders and visited contacts in their homes.

"We never asked for anything," she says. "Instead, we would admire an object and talk about how to preserve it. And we collected oral histories."

More often than not, they left with an heirloom as well as a great story.

In the end, 500 objects had been obtained for the permanent collection. While many have been authenticated by research, others are documented through family stories passed down through the generations.

"An object is just an artifact unless it has a story behind it," Coney says. "The story builds a bridge to the past."

Here are some seemingly ordinary objects and the three extraordinary tales behind them.

• McCready fought for the right to be trained as a nurse

• During Louis Diggs' service, the military integrated

• A love story carved in Callum's family tree

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