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The march of African-American history; Tour: Meet Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and other remarkable black historical figures on the African-American Renaissance Grand Tour


Frederick Douglass will be hanging out in Fells Point. Harriet Tubman will talk about her pivotal role in the Underground Railroad. North Pole explorer Matthew Henson will chill you with tales of the arctic.

These notable figures from African-American history will be re-created by character actors for the third African-American Renaissance Grand Tour.

"This is such a mammoth task," says Thomas L. Saunders, co-producer for the four-hour tour. "We bring everything to life. Including the musicians, it takes about 150 people to get this together."

This tour is patterned after Baltimore's Black Landmarks Tour, which was founded by Thelma Banks Cox, Saunders says. The more compact African-American Renaissance Tours are run throughout the year by Saunders and Alice Torriente. But the grand tour, co-sponsored by the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, is more inclusive.

Most of the famous characters in African-American history will be portrayed by character actors of no relation. Not so with Frederick Douglass and a few others. The historian, orator and human rights activist will be portrayed by -- Frederick Douglass.

"He is my great-great-grandfather," says Douglass, public relations director for Morgan State University. Douglass is a very busy man this time of year.

"During Black History Month, I am always giving speeches," he says. "I do this to keep the memory alive. Between Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and others, there are lessons that need to be heard by today's students."

These days, the legacy of history is being taken for granted, he says.

"Young people need to hear about the importance of voting and the meaning of segregation and slavery. On the positive side, we have to appreciate the strides we have made in employment and education."

Douglass will be at the Fells Point stop on the tour, where he will give a speech while in the persona of his famous ancestor. He thinks the costumes will help set the mood.

"Young people today are very visually oriented," he says. "So this tour will be particularly appealing for them."

Douglass realizes that the subject matter is difficult for some to hear.

"I know some people are ashamed to talk about or hear about slavery," he says. "But there is nothing wrong with being unsettled. Sometimes we need to be unsettled. If you don't understand where you came from, you can't understand where you are going."

It's not just ancestors who will be honored during the tour. One of the tour's starting points is in front of the NAACP national headquarters, to pay tribute to a living legend, Saunders says.

"We are honoring Maryland's great griot, Mary Carter Smith," he says. "What will happen is that the first 100 children will give the honoree bouquets of flowers."

Still, the tour is mainly about history and education.

Other stops include Carroll Park. "It was a former industrial plantation run by barrister Charles Carroll," Saunders explains.

The James E. Lewis Museum at Morgan State University is another stop. The museum is named after the late African-American artist and art collector who was also chairman of Morgan State University's art department. The museum is believed to hold the largest collection of African and African-American art in the state.

The tour will also go past Pimlico Race Course, where people will hear about Baltimore's black families who were involved in the racing and horse industry. "There will be kids dressed as jockeys there," Saunders says. "They were all slaves."

Farther along the northwest corridor of Baltimore, various sites will be highlighted and talked about.

"We will point out black businesses, such as the ones owned by [fast-food entrepreneur] LaVan Hawkins," Saunders says. "We will also go to Ashburton and pass the homes of the mayor, state Delegate Pete Rawlings, [Baltimore register of wills] Mary Conaway and [clerk of the Baltimore Circuit Court] Frank Conaway.

At the Liberty Medical Center, there will also be actors in costume. "We will have black 'nurses' there waving," he says. Tour guides will identify all of the costumed people and give the history of their characters.

They will talk about the glory days of Pennsylvania Avenue, when it was a happening spot. "During the days of segregation, black businesses flourished there. We will point out where the nightclubs used to be and talk about some of the people who performed there.

"We will talk about how there used to be an Easter parade down Pennsylvania Avenue," Saunders says. "There will be students playing [instruments] at the site of the old Royal Theater." Another stop will be at the Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, where Dorothy Dougherty will speak about its historical significance.

"The congregation was founded in 1787 and moved into its present building in 1898," she explains. "The congregation built that church from the ground up."

Among the facts Dougherty will talk about is how Morgan State University began inside the church in 1867 because it had no other building.

"And the church has a tremendous civil rights history in the African-American community," she says. "Frederick Douglass was a member of the church from 1836 to 1838, and he sang in the choir."

People will get off of the bus and enter the church building, where they will hear a tape about some of the things the church was involved in, Dougherty says.

Another ancestor who will be portrayed by a relative is Matthew Henson, a Charles County native who was an arctic explorer and, with Robert Peary, the first to reach the North Pole. His grand-nephew, James E. Henson III, is a member of the Maryland Commission on Human Relations. He will be at the Inner Harbor talking about his famous relative.

There will be many other stops and characters on the African-American Renaissance Grand Tour, including "appearances" by Malcolm X, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry Highland Garnet, a leader in the abolitionist movement.

Each tour concludes at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, 1601-1603 North Ave.

"It is a good place to conclude the tour. They can see everyone we have been talking about all day," Saunders says. "It is truly a grand tour."


What: The African-American Renaissance Grand Tour

When: Today and tomorrow at 9 a.m

Where: Routes vary

Tickets: $30 (includes a boxed lunch)

Call: 410-727-0755 or 410-728-3837 for reservations and information

Pub Date: 02/25/99

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