While it saddened me to read recently of the attendance troubles at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, I was not surprised. In a city where museums generally exceed expectations, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum has always left something to be desired.
As a high school history teacher in Baltimore City public schools, I have never wanted to take my students there because I know intuitively they would hate it. While I understand the impulse to showcase African Americans' social and economic high achievers, this positivist approach obscures the scope of what black Americans have overcome in the past and the challenges they still face today. Only the toughest people in history could have endured such an ordeal, and their triumph is of far greater import than that of any scientist or businessperson. In short, I believe that the museum is failing because it takes what is arguably the most dynamic and important slice of American history and turns it into the equivalent of a long and boring book report.
In historical terms, Baltimore and the state of Maryland can honestly claim to be the seat of the organized resistance against the racist economic practices upon which this country was founded. The exceptional life of Benjamin Banneker in pre-Revolutionary Ellicott City serves as the original chapter in this struggle's playbook. Later, John Brown launched the first military attack on slavery from Maryland waters. The first combat of the Civil War that followed was fought on the streets of this city. And it was on the Canton waterfront where Baltimore's greatest historical figure, Frederick Douglass, began surreptitiously sharpening his tremendous intellect into a weapon for liberation.
Up through the Civil War, literally thousands of black Anne Franks were either smuggled or redeemed through the efforts of good and brave local people. And it was in this same struggle that Maryland's Harriet Tubman became probably the greatest female hero in all of American History. Even in the modern struggle, Baltimore figures prominently as the home of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP. As such, we are the natural setting for the definitive African American history museum; it is just that the Reginald F. Lewis Museum has never been that place. In fact, museum officials have sought in recent years to emphasize art more and history less.
Having a museum that brings African American history to life is not just important for black Americans; the Civil Rights Movement has extended the rights of all American citizens and provided a roadmap to people yearning for these same freedoms everywhere. If Baltimore is ever to take up its rightful mantle as an American history tourist destination like Boston and Philadelphia, we cannot give up on telling this story. Right now, we are mainly known as a leading center of homicide and addiction. Who would want to visit such a place?
We also need to showcase our remarkable place in American history for the sake of the young people of this area: They need this source of civic pride and a sense of their ancestors as heroes and not just victims. Reginald F. Lewis may have been a great Baltimorean, but his name has very little meaning as a symbol in this struggle. The entire conception of the museum needs to be reworked if it is ever going to serve the city as a true attraction.
J.B. Salganik teaches Social Studies in a Baltimore City public school.
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