New venue for his vision African American culture has champion in dynamic historian

JUBILANTLY, Steven Cameron Newsome thumps his fist on the padded pew where he sits in the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.

For the first time, he says, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra lists in its calendar of events the annual "Let Freedom Ring" concert honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


For Newsome, whose life is committed to promoting and preserving African American culture and history, official recognition by the BSO is a significant revision of the city's -- and by extension, the nation's -- segregated cultural blueprint.

Since he became director of both the Banneker-Douglass Museum and its oversight body, the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture, 4 1/2 years ago, coordinating the annual King concert has been one of Newsome's countless responsibilities. And every year, Newsome has used his post to persuade the BSO to perform works by African American composers, and to persuade the African American community itself to enter Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. As he has done so, his vision of treasured traditions shared, renewed and girded by institutional acceptance, has come vibrantly alive.


"It is another one of my subterfuge kind of activities," Newsome says of the yearly musical celebration. "An important thing for me is to find a way for the African American community to claim the orchestra. So often, [this] community does not claim mainstream institutions as theirs."

Tuesday's concert honoring King includes the Baltimore premiere of "African Portraits," a cantata by trumpeter Hannibal Peterson that speaks of the black experience in America. The concert is also Newsome's last. On March 1, he starts work as the director of Anacostia Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's 23-year-old satellite museum in southeast Washington devoted to African American culture.

By all accounts, Newsome -- who has straddled three jobs for two years since being named director of the office of Cultural and Educational Services within the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development -- has been a tireless, inspirational and innovative champion of African American life. Making the most of minimal resources and a tiny staff, he has put the Banneker-Douglass Museum on the map with diverse shows, related workshops and concerts and a long range exhibit schedule. Strong links with local, state and regional programs now extend the museum's reach far beyond its residential neighborhood as well.

"He's committed to advancing the cause of the collection, preservation and documentation of African American history and culture," says Daphne Harrison, chairman of the department of African American studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a commission member. "If he had a fairy godmother, what he would do would be to make everybody see the value of the richness of the culture."

Talkative, warm, dressed in a flowery tie and jazzy red sweater, ++ Newsome reviews his tenure at the museum, the former home of the Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church. "What I've attempted to do with Banneker, as director of the commission and [and in other capacities] is to show that protection of African American culture is a shared responsibility," says Newsome, 38, who left his position as curator of the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature in Chicago to come to Annapolis.

"It requires planning, an institutionalization of some policy, some vision, a hell of a lot of creativity, and being able to keep on doing what you're doing in spite of adversity," he says. "It is not easy to do what we do without a whole lot of money. We don't have a great big budget and we don't pretend that we do. . . . What we have accomplished is a sort of understated, quiet sense of quality of presentation and effort."

Newsome's perfectionism has become a source of amusement for current and past co-workers. Because of his irresistible urge to tinker with their decisions, Newsome has been barred from the museum's upper levels until two weeks before a show opens.

Newsome sees his fanatical attention to detail as critical in drawing out and celebrating "the sacredness" of objects selected for exhibition. "When working in an African American institution, I think one of the things we try very hard to do is talk about the ordinary as significant," he says. "And what that does is place the items of ordinary everyday life or the photographs of ordinary folk in a very sacred place. I think that's one of my concerns: have we protected that sense of sacredness that we're trying to show the public?"


Newsome deliberately plans exhibits so that they may serve a spectrum of artistic purposes and reach varied audiences. "The net goes out sometimes wider, and sometimes it goes out very specifically," he says.

"At a small museum such as Banneker-Douglass, we can't expect blockbuster crowds, that might appear at a Baltimore Museum of Art because of a Monet show, or something like that. But that steady trickle of people is what we want: those school groups, those church groups, those sororities and fraternities that want to come."

An earlier exhibition of quilts and the museum's current show, "A Focus on Dignity: The Photography of the Scurlock Family," a visual history of 20th century black Washingtonians, both great and small, were incorporated into the annual Kunta Kinte festival in Annapolis. Future exhibitions planned at Banneker-Douglass include a black doll show, an exhibit focusing on African American arts and crafts, and shows that commemorate the civil rights movement.

Buoyed by a larger budget, Newsome hopes to expand his vision at the Anacostia Museum. With the aid of a staff folklorist, he plans to collect the traditional customs and oral histories carried by the thousands of African Americans who migrated from the South to Washington.

They are the plans of a man who prefers to look at Washington as a glass half full, not half empty. "Just as [Mayor] Sharon Pratt Dixon said in her inaugural speech, 'We can no longer define this city by her problems, but by her potential.' I think that's so important," Newsome says. "I am very, very aware of the problems of drug abuse and violence and AIDS, but I also sincerely believe that I cannot nor should anyone else, look at the African American community from a pathological perspective. If we do, we have done a major disservice to our community."

The BSO and the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture present "Let Freedom Ring" at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Admission is free, with a limit of two tickets per person. Tickets must be picked up in advance at the BSO ticket office. Call 783-8100.