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'Baltimore Stories' event aims to discuss race, narratives effect

UMBC hosts 'Baltimore Stories' event Saturday, which aimed to discuss race, narratives effect on Baltimore.

One photograph shows a National Guardsman in fatigues outside Harborplace. Another captures a large crowd gathered outside Penn Station. A third shows young boys riding bicycles past marchers carrying signs that read "Justice 4 Freddie Carlos Gray."

The more than 12,000 images — some taken by seasoned photographers, others by ordinary people with cellphones —form one part of "Baltimore Stories: Narratives and the Life of an American City."

The yearlong project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, aimed to "contextualize narratives of race," organizers said. The Dresher Center for the Humanities in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences hosted the event, and the project was a collaboration among the University of Maryland's College of Arts and Humanities, Maryland Humanities, and others.

A discussion Saturday, the final event of the project, centered on how those narratives are made and disseminated by media following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, whose background is in math and science, spoke of the importance of stories and the willingness to listen.

"Each of us has stories," he said. "They make us who were are today."

Organizers held about 20 sessions over the past year at which Baltimoreans could discuss their stories and find ways to preserve them.

The photography collection, which has been preserved on the baltimoreuprising2015.org website, was assembled with the Maryland Historical Society.

Denise Meringolo, a history professor at UMBC who helped create the collection, said it offers images of the uprising that were not as visible in traditional media coverage, which she said focused on the violence during the rioting.

"This is from the ground up," she said. Many pictures, she said, show "incredible peaceful" scenes.

Much of Saturday's discussion focused on perceptions of the city and residents following the riots.

Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died in April 2015 after suffering a severe spinal injury in the back of a police van.

Six police officers involved in his arrest and transport were charged with offenses ranging from misconduct in office to murder. Three were acquitted, and prosecutors dropped charges against the rest.

Jessica Berman, director of UMBC's Dresher Center for the Humanities, said the program aims "to get community voices from lots of different places," and to understand the complexities of those stories.

Looking at a variety of stories across the city, she said, allows a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the city.

Hrabowski spoke of the role that public universities play in a community. He said there must be emphasis on asking the community and listening before taking action.

"We too often assume," he said, which does not help build relationships, but makes communities less trusting of those in academics.

Mama Rashida Forman-Bey of WombWork Productions said collecting a diverse group of stories allows a more complete, broader view of the community.

Oppression has caused "a false story has been told" of the African-American community, she said. But through telling their own stories, she said, members of the community can change that narrative.

Project organizers have created a school curriculum to help students think more critically, said Phoebe Stein, the executive director of the Maryland Humanities.

Organizers are hoping to start similar projects elsewhere in the state, including Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore,

Brenda Tindal, a staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., said the program should be adopted by other cities so there can be change.

Charlotte experienced protests after a police officer shot a black man to death in September.

"There are other cities that are in desperate need to have a platform" too, Tindal said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

Editor's Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct the name of the Maryland Humanities organization. The Sun regrets the error.

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