Laurel Museum presents a history of activism

Special to The Laurel Leader

“We The People,” the colorful banner draped across the Laurel Museum in Old Town, calls to Everyman (and woman) from all walks of life who call Laurel home.

Inside the restored 19th-century brick millhouse, the Laurel Historical Society’s 2018 exhibit — “We The People: How Civic Engagement Has Shaped Laurel” — presents stories of civic action that occurred in Laurel’s past and offers a grass roots blueprint for anyone who wants a voice in its future.

Unveiled on Feb. 4 and continuing through December, the 10-section exhibit reveals surprising details about events such as clashes with the KKK and the fight to integrate Laurel schools, the restoration and preservation of Laurel’s national historic landmarks and the relatively recent debate over changing the name of the Stanley Memorial Library.

It highlights the accomplishments of Laurel political activists who defeated the proposed Redskin stadium in the 1990s. And of others who, more recently, fought to “Save Our Stop” when the historic 1835 Railroad Station, which still operates proudly at the east end of Main Street, was threatened with the stop being relocated to Laurel Park in 2015.

Among the artifacts on display are detailed display panels, century-old newspaper articles and original signs from protests and events held in decades past.

Visitor Stacey Hawkins said she found “We The People” all inclusive.

“It’s very engaging,” she said. “It touches on so much of Laurel’s social, political and educational history.”

According to Jhanna Levin, chairwoman of the Laurel Historical Society board, “We The People” is the brainchild of the museum’s past executive director, Lindsey Baker — an exhibit that Baker and a committee comprised of Monica Sturdivant, Frances Brooks, Cheryl Poulos, Doug Hayes and Richard Friend spent much of the previous year preparing.

Baker, who served as executive director of Laurel Museum for the past decade, said she had no clue she’d be moving on in her career when the project started.

“I’m proud of it; I’m really glad we were able to do it,” Baker said. “I feel like it’s timely and it shows a reflexive, responsive organization which was always my goal with the Laurel Historical Society — to be able to utilize our resources to really respond to what’s happening in the community.”

Friend, a graphic artist who’s been designing the museum’s displays since the “Lost and Found Laurel” exhibit in 2014, said he is encouraged to learn that Laurel residents have banded together for various causes more often than he’d realized.

“It’s an interesting and timely concept with so many protests going on today,” Friend said. “As a citizen, you have a voice.”

At the Feb. 4 reception, new Laurel Historical Society members Poulos and Hayes said they were proud of the research work they contributed, which Hayes described as uncovering a mystery and “like peeling back layers from an onion.”

Past Laurel Historical Society President Shari Pollard, who’s lived in West Laurel for more than 50 years, said the exhibit presents real and opposing viewpoints and accurately reflects her memories of resisting the Redskin Stadium, saving the railroad station, restoring the foundry building and struggling with the “integration issue.”

“We had quite a disagreement in my neighborhood and some people [temporarily] stopped speaking to me,” Pollard said.

In the east gallery, the Organizations Shaping Laurel display includes calls to action from more than a dozen active Laurel groups. Organizations as diverse as the American Legion, Elizabeth House, Fidos for Freedom, First Generation College Bound, Friends of the Laurel Library, Laurel Art Guild, Laurel Board of Trade, Laurel Cats, Laurel Resist, Laurel Sr. Friendship Club, Lions Club, Lovely Ladies of Laurel, Side by Side, West Laurel Civic Association and the Woman’s Club of Laurel are represented.

And Civic Engagement 101, situated in the left corner, presents basic engagement tactics including instructions on how to write a letter to the editor, how to register to vote and how to write to elected officials.

New to West Laurel, Lenda Dincer said she found out about the “We The People” through the Laurel Resist Meet Up Group, and that attending the reception was her first visit.

“I am very impressed with Laurel’s rich history,” she said.

Other visitors representing Laurel Resist included Laurel Cross (also of the Woman’s Club of Laurel), Amy Knox, Lynne Sport, Annette Schroer and Caroline Friedly.

On March 1 at 7 p.m., Laurel attorney Tom Dernoga and fellow Laurel Historical Society veteran Jeanne Mignon — who co-chaired the Committee Against The Stadium-2 with Dernoga almost 25 years ago — will present a lecture entitled “The Laurel Redskins: Civic Engagement Scores A Victory” at the Laurel Branch Library.

Dernoga, who is active in five of the aforementioned groups and attended the exhibit opening wearing a tongue-in-cheek T-shirt, promises anecdotal stories and details about the fierce 1990s fight that swayed the course to Laurel’s present.

“What makes Laurel great is that we’ve had so many active volunteers,” Dernoga said.

“We The People: How Civic Engagement Has Shaped Laurel” continues through December at the Laurel Museum, 817 Main St. The museum is open Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m.–2 p.m., and Sundays 1–4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information about the museum and upcoming events, go to laurelhistoricalsociety.org.

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