African American history comes to life in Baltimore
By MILTON KENT and For The Baltimore Sun
Sep 30, 2013 | 9:12 AM
On its face, "History come to life" isn't the most memorable of corporate sayings, like "Good to the last drop" or "It keeps going and going …"
Yet it would be hard to argue that Thomas Saunders and his company, Renaissance Productions & Tours, don't deliver on the promise.
For 20 years, Saunders, who has done a little of everything from operating a disco to quashing rumors for Baltimore City government, has been leading groups on tours around the area to sites that have significance in African-American history. And he attempts to personalize and even personify his outings with touches of real life that feed into his love of history.
For instance, when tourists sign on for lunches to eat on their buses, Saunders is careful to provide modern replicas of the "shoebox" lunches that black people ate during the civil rights era, with fried chicken wrapped in waxed paper, a roll, pound cake and an apple.
However, Saunders' biggest nod to livening up the past is his use of actors to portray famous historic figures such as Harriet Tubman, perhaps the most famous of the "conductors" on the Underground Railroad of the pre-Civil War era; former slave Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself into freedom; and jazz singer Billie Holliday.
"My passion has always been history," said Saunders. "That's always been my best subject. Being from Baltimore, I just know the history and I know a lot of the people."
A recent tour visited the Orchard Street Church, one of the local "stops" along the Underground Railroad. Located just off Martin Luther King Boulevard, the church was founded in 1825 by Truman Le Pratt, a former slave of Maryland Gov. John Eager Howard. It operated as a Methodist church for more than a century until it closed in 1970.
The church was unused until 1992, when the Baltimore Urban League took it over as its headquarters, which is its current status.
During the visit to the church, Saunders employed the services of Artartus Jenkins, a local actor.
A group of teen and tween boys from the Hampton Roads, Va., region had spent that morning viewing statues at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in East Baltimore, statues that they dared not touch.
So hours later as they strolled by the lifelike figure of a man seated in the sanctuary who was dressed to resemble African-American writer and orator Frederick Douglass, the boys were sure the man in the chair was made of paraffin.
When the figure stood and began delivering booming oratory, the boys jumped from their seats. And Saunders smiled, as history came to life indeed.
"That's what makes this company different from others," Saunders said.
Jenkins, as Douglass, gave a talk to the group — including an admonition to appreciate what their forebears worked for and to take their studies seriously, pull up their pants and keep moving forward.
That personal touch was exactly what Bruce Hacker had in mind when his organization, the Hampton Roads Committee of 200 Plus Men, booked Renaissance.
Hacker, a volunteer with the Tidewater-based service organization that sponsors an annual Brother-to-Brother Camp to mentor area African-American teenage boys, said the committee has hired Renaissance for seven years to conduct tours to help the boys connect with their heritage.
"[Saunders] just did a remarkable job," said Hacker. "It was very impactful. It was much better than having the boys just walk through on their own and try and take things in."
Saunders inherited the idea of an historical tour from Thelma Banks Cox, a former city schools official and the founder of the city's African American Heritage Society.
Saunders, who has written a book on the role of African-Americans in Maryland horse racing, joined the society in 1990 and took over the tour two years later upon Cox's death.
Saunders and a staff of six permanent tour guides, along with 20 part-time guides, lead the tours through a variety of locales. The tours are tailored to the wishes of the tourists, Saunders said, and can take different forms.
For example, a tour conducted during Women's History Month can include stops at Fort McHenry with an emphasis on Mary Pickersgill, the seamstress who sewed the flag that became the Star Spangled Banner, as well as Grace Wisher, a young African-American apprentice who assisted Pickersgill. There are also tours that play up Baltimore's role in the civil rights movement and in jazz and gospel music.
"There's really no such thing as black history," said Saunders. "What we're talking about is Baltimore history. It didn't take place in a vacuum."
Pricing for a Renaissance tour is dependent upon on how much a group wants to see, as well as the admission charge of the respective venues on the tour. Saunders said the company charges a flat $300 fee for a guide to step onto a bus and narrate a tour, as well for the "shoebox lunch."
Though the tour emphasizes local history, Saunders said the overwhelming share of Renaissance customers come from out of town, with groups from New York and Philadelphia making up a large percentage of the tours.
Only about 10 percent of tours are taken by Baltimore-area residents, Saunders said.