Edna Williams Lawrence froze at the sight of a dotted outline of an absent figure in a painting of seamstress Mary Young Pickersgill during her first visit three years ago to The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and Museum in Baltimore.
The outline represents Grace Wisher, a free Black child who was Pickersgill’s indentured servant and apprentice. The painting didn’t include the girl, estimated to be about 10 years old, who an exhibit panel says “would have been another set of hands aiding in the six week production” of the 30-by-42-foot flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired the words of what became the national anthem.
To Lawrence, a griot and quilter who goes by “Grandmother Edna,” the added information wasn’t enough.
“It was like a dagger in my chest,” said Lawrence, who lives in Baltimore. “When I came home, I designed a quilt, and I called [the museum] and said, ‘I have a proposal to do a quilt to give Grace Wisher an image.’”
The quilt was one of a dozen Lawrence lent the downtown museum for a temporary exhibit in 2018 that was extended until this July. As the exhibit wound down, Lawrence said she sought to celebrate Grace in a more lasting, prominent way.
But her event to dedicate a ceremonial “Grace Wisher Way” street sign blew up in a manner the storyteller and the museum’s director discuss in bitter terms. And the larger question of how to represent Grace at the nonprofit museum illustrates an ongoing national struggle over how to interpret, contextualize and teach history, which has long underrepresented Black historical figures.
In the early 2000s, T. Stephen Whitman, a history professor at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, found Grace’s apprenticeship contract in the Maryland State Archives. The museum added an outline representing Grace to the plexiglass covering of R. McGill Mackall’s 1962 painting, and a panel on the wall below now highlights Grace’s absence from the oil-on-canvas depiction.
“When art imitates history,” it reads, “there can be a misrepresentation of information.”
Tour guides discussed Grace’s living conditions and a “Family of Flag Makers” exhibit that opened in 2014 features her silhouette in an attic window of a model house.
Without any available images of Grace, the outline and silhouette are how the museum “actively combats exclusionary interpretation and confronts visitors with voices forgotten from important American events,” Flag House Executive Director Amanda Shores Davis said.
Lawrence’s quilt exhibit added another dimension, one Davis said she welcomed. She gave Lawrence bunting from a 1963 replica flag made for the New York World’s Fair to sew into her Old Glory-themed Grace Wisher quilt.
At a time of heightened racial and partisan divides, museums and other institutions in Baltimore and across the country have stepped up efforts to share a more nuanced and inclusive history.
An exhibit at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home, Monticello, opened in 2018 to show the living quarters of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who gave birth to children with the Founding Father. Maryland universities have removed the names of slaveholders and supporters of racial segregation from campus buildings in recent years. At the Flag House, staff are shifting the focus from the War of 1812 to the lives of the women who lived there.
“What we are seeing now is a desire for a more full history,” said Terri Lee Freeman, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which opened next door to the Flag House in 2005.
But interpreting historical events presents a challenge, not least because of disagreement among people with different perspectives and backgrounds about what constitutes adequate and appropriate material for textbooks and exhibits — and on the speed of the timelines for recasting their narratives. Several blocks from the Flag House, protesters tore down a statue on July 4 last year of Christopher Columbus, while neighbors successfully petitioned the city this spring to remove a statue of slaveholder John O’Donnell in nearby Canton.
“We wrestle with this,” Freeman said. “Of course, no museum can put every piece of the historic record on the wall. But you have to be able to distill it in a way that gives people the sense of what the full truth was.”
Lawrence’s quilts formed an exhibit she called “Fabric Expressions: THE LOST STORY (I AM GRACE WISHER).” Sharing the story mattered to her, particularly as a griot in the African diaspora, because, she said, “Grace Wisher is a part of the American story.” In West African tradition, griots are storytellers, oral historians and poets.
To create a more lasting memorial, Lawrence paid the city $150 to install a ceremonial sign dedicating the block along one side of the house to Grace.
Lawrence emailed Davis in April to inform her before ordering the sign, and she said she dropped off a news release and invitation at the museum’s front desk the week before the July 3 dedication. She said she didn’t hear from Davis ahead of the event.
The event didn’t go off as planned; the city hadn’t installed the sign in time. Lawrence, her family and guests visited the museum, however, and a museum staff member heard Lawrence tell a television news crew covering her event that Pickersgill “abused and neglected” the young indentured servant.
Davis, who wasn’t there, called Lawrence. The storyteller said Davis ordered her group off the property.
“She talked to me like I was a slave,” Lawrence said, adding that she felt Davis was “nasty” to her “for opening my mouth when they didn’t tell me to.”
Davis disputed Lawrence’s description, saying: “Her slanderous words are detrimental to my reputation — and the antithesis of who I am as a person — and to the Flag House, a small museum whose mission is to actively work to tell diverse stories in a time of deep hardship for arts programming.”
Davis said she didn’t know in advance about Lawrence’s ceremony. After being notified by the staffer, she said, she called to tell Lawrence it was “inappropriate” for her to give “potentially inaccurate information” to the media. She said she also told Lawrence the museum could not accommodate her group on the holiday weekend because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Lawrence’s daughter, Rhonda Allen, who attended the event, said her mother returned to her group after the call with Davis deflated. She had brought visitors to the museum countless times, performed four educational workshops there, and had thanked the Flag House in the interview moments earlier.
“It’s really sad they chastened my mom,” Allen said. “She looked hurt.”
It angered her so much that Lawrence, who is Black, called for Davis, who is white, to be removed from her position.
“I’m 74 years old,” she said. “I don’t allow no one to talk to me in that manner.”
Shannon Gomez, a manager at T. Rowe Price who serves as president of the museum’s board of directors, said the board does not plan to fire Davis. She said she is pleased with Davis’ performance, and praised her “upstanding character” and her work with communities and organizations in the area.
“We are trying to tell the story of everyone,” she said. “We’re doing great work from that perspective. ... Nothing, to me, right now, would lead to her resignation.”
In Lawrence’s Mount Vernon apartment on the day this summer that she picked up her quilts from the Flag House, she read from a binder containing the Flag House’s 2010-2011 scripts for tour guides, which a former docent’s wife gave her. Lawrence indicated the institution’s own scripts, which described how Grace and an enslaved Black woman lived, bolster her description of how poorly Grace was treated.
“It is likely that Grace and the slave slept on the floor in this room to be close to the fire that they had to tend. Does that sound comfortable to you?” the script says.
“Those are their words,” Lawrence said, “not mine.”
In addition to cooking and tending the fire, Grace and the enslaved woman would have fetched water for drinking and washing, emptied chamber pots and done laundry for the household of nine, according to an analysis of the indenture contract by Whitman, the historian who discovered it.
Grace’s six-year contract prohibited her from leaving the house without permission. It paid Grace’s mother, Jenny Wisher, $12 per year, or about $246 in today’s money.
Dean Krimmel, principal of Creative Museum Services, helped create the interpretive plan for the 2014 exhibit that first recognized Grace. That Pickersgill and her family members worked with enslaved people while sewing the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key’s ode to the “Land of the Free” fascinated Krimmel.
“That’s a really interesting wrinkle — not a shock, because this is American history — but it adds a really interesting dimension to the story of the great symbol of our freedom, doesn’t it?” he said. “Yet another contradiction. Welcome to America.”
Now Krimmel, a museum consultant who is a board member of The Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture, is creating an updated interpretive plan for the Flag House. Paid for by an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, it aims to be more inclusive, updating the tour scripts and developing, training and diversifying the staff, Davis said.
Meanwhile, Lawrence brought her Grace Wisher quilt last weekend to an Art in the Park festival in Hagerstown, and she hopes to offer a “Grace for Grace” presentation in local classrooms during the school year.
For now, the Grace Wisher Way sign installed in July is the only visible sign of the growth of her story at the site since Lawrence learned of her during her initial 2018 visit. Feeling a sense of urgency to deepen the acknowledgment of Grace’s role in history, the griot ordered the sign in red and installed “so when you drive down that one-way street, you’re going to see the sign.”
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“I wanted that to force the conversation,” she said.