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Great Blacks in Wax gets boost from bill

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Education and outreach programs at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in East Baltimore got a boost last night when the U.S. Senate, as expected, approved a measure that would pour $5 million into the cultural center's coffers.

The House approved this week an identical bill to help expand civil rights and violence-prevention initiatives at the nation's first wax museum honoring African-Americans.

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Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings introduced the National Great Black Americans Commemoration Act of 2003, which would add Justice Department money to state, city and private funds aimed at expanding exhibits, facilities and programs at the Baltimore museum, which drew 220,000 visitors last year.

Cummings called the museum, which will be renamed the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and Justice Learning Center, "a stalwart in its community."

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"Because of its uniqueness, we wanted to make sure that it got the national recognition it deserves so that even more people can enjoy what the museum has to offer," Cummings said.

The museum displays more than 100 wax figures depicting lawmakers, scientists, educators, civil rights leaders, military veterans and abolitionists.

Some are hometown heroes, including Osborne A. Payne, Baltimore's first black McDonald's franchisee, jazz singer Billie Holiday and Bea Gaddy, who fed the city's poor and hungry.

Others, such as Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin S. Carson and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, are internationally known.

"This is a great victory," Mikulski said of the bill. "Black Americans have a rich history that must be cherished and remembered. This bill will honor leaders from across the country - some who are well known and others who are almost forgotten - by helping to preserve their names, faces, and stories for generations to come. We are now one step closer to giving these pioneers the recognition they deserve."

Joanne Martin founded the museum 21 years ago with her husband, Elmer, nurturing its growth from the 1,200-square-foot storefront that was its first home to the cavernous former firehouse to which it later moved.

When a $60 million capital expansion that began last fall is complete, the North Avenue museum will have grown to 120,000 square feet, Martin said.

"The mere fact that we've been able to get legislation passed in this budget and economic climate, I think, bodes well for the museum," she said yesterday.

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The state and the city have contributed a total of nearly $10 million toward an expansion that will occupy a city block.

The $5 million in federal funding is to be used to create a Justice Learning Center where youths can learn lessons from the civil rights era and strategies to stem community violence.

Martin, a former educator, said the learning center would build on the museum's teaching objectives.

"It's a part of our mission to teach youth the lessons of black history to encourage positive behavior," she said.


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