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Restored civil rights museum showcases early freedom fighters

Baltimore reclaimed a piece of its history Saturday with the reopening of a civil rights museum that chronicles heroes, sit-ins and lynchings, and released a flood of old memories for many visitors.

"People think civil rights started in the 1960s. No sir," said Helena Hicks, 82, who was among the first to tour the newly restored museum, which recounts local civil rights struggles dating to the 1930s.

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The museum is named for the late Lillie Carroll Jackson, the longtime head of the NAACP's Baltimore chapter, and is housed at her converted, four-story row home in Bolton Hill containing period furniture and the original, creaking hardwood floors. It is owned and operated by Morgan State University.

"I lived one street over," said Hicks, herself a civil rights activist. "Lillie May Jackson collected up a youth group of all the young people to try to teach us how to fight for freedom, and I was part of that youth group."

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Hicks picketed Baltimore's Ford's Theater as a young girl in the 1940s to protest its "Jim Crow" admissions policy. As a Morgan State student in the 1950s, she defied restrictions against blacks by entering Read's drugstore on a cold January day.

"We were going to sit down and get warm and they threatened to call the police. We got out of there. We were terrified. We thought we were going to get put out of school," Hicks said.

The museum, on Eutaw Place, tells the stories of Jackson, her family and other early activists long before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

Upon entering the museum, visitors are met with a large banner — "A Man Was Lynched Yesterday" — recalling one displayed at the New York headquarters of the NAACP in the 1930s. A framed newspaper article shows a photograph of George Armwood, the last black man killed by a lynch mob in Maryland in 1933.

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There are two "period rooms" — one contains a faded rug and old picture-tube TV — and six exhibit galleries.

Among Saturday's visitors was Jackson's great-grandson Keiffer Mitchell, a former Democratic lawmaker and adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan. Jackson's daughter, Juanita, married into the well-known Mitchell family and was a prominent civil rights lawyer.

"I am named after Lillie Jackson's husband, Keiffer Jackson," Mitchell said. "This is a very poignant moment because I remember as a young boy coming through the house and seeing my great-grandmother. She passed away when I was 8-years-old. It definitely will bring a tear to my eye."

Jackson, who died in 1975, requested that her home — where civil rights campaigns were often organized — become a museum about the battle against racial prejudice.

A museum was housed there in the 1990s. The house, in need of structural repair, was taken over by Morgan State in 1996 and closed for repairs.

The $3 million project — funded largely by the state with help from the university — not only restored the museum but significantly expanded its offerings. It now contains drawings, paintings, letters, photographs, recorded interviews and an elevator.

For now, the museum is open to the public by appointment only. Morgan State President David Wilson said he hopes the money will become available to open it more regularly.

"This certainly will become a vehicle through which our students and others will be able to learn about the great civil rights movement in a hands-on way" and understand Jackson's contributions, Wilson said.

"They can come and touch some of the relics of that particular period and they can hear her voice," he said.

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