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Bridges to the Past


Day by day, county by county and door by door, Kathryn Coney and her colleagues have gradually accumulated a treasure trove.

Some of the objects they collected have historic significance, while others are intimate and everyday. Some belonged to famous people while others were owned by miners and fishermen.

But all were owned by black people living in the Free State. Taken as a whole, the cache - which forms the permanent collection of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture - reveals this community's rich and layered history.

The $33 million, 82,000-square-foot museum at 830 E. Pratt St. opens to the public Saturday. Most museums are built to house existing collections, but plans were made to build the Lewis Museum before a single object had been acquired to place inside it. Gathering those objects - and their histories - has been Coney's job for the past 21 months.

Coney, who manages the museum's collections, scoured catalogs and architectural magazines. While tracking down leads, she picked kale with a farm family, staged a weekend retreat for black leaders and visited contacts in their homes.

"We never asked for anything," she says. "Instead, we would admire an object and talk about how to preserve it. And we collected oral histories."

More often than not, they left with an heirloom as well as a great story.

In the end, 500 objects had been obtained for the permanent collection. While many have been authenticated by research, others are documented through family stories passed down through the generations.

"An object is just an artifact unless it has a story behind it," Coney says. "The story builds a bridge to the past."

Here are some seemingly ordinary objects and the three extraordinary tales behind them.


In 1949, almost on a whim, Esther McCready requested an application from an all-white nursing school. That began a court battle that lasted more than a year, enlisted the talents of a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall, and integrated the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore.

The hard-won letter that McCready received admitting her to the class of 1953 and the Florence Nightingale cap -- or "Flossie" -- that she later earned are on display at the Lewis Museum.

At the time, Provident Hospital in Baltimore had a nursing program that accepted black students. In addition, the University of Maryland, desperate to maintain its whites-only status, paid tuition for some black nursing students from Maryland who agreed to study out of state.

But McCready didn't want to go to Provident, and she also didn't want to attend nursing school in Tennessee. She wanted to study at the nursing school that she had been walking past for the past 17 years on her way to medical check-ups at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

On her application, McCready clearly stated that she had graduated from a black high school.

"I thought it was a shame that because of my race, there was only one school in Baltimore that I could attend," says McCready, now 74 and a New York resident. "But I wasn't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. I knew what they were going to say, but I wanted to make them say it."

Months went by. After repeated inquiries, McCready was told that her credentials were being reviewed. When she called again a few months later, she received the same reply. She went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The organization filed suit on McCready's behalf. Initially, the district court ruled against her, but the NAACP appealed. The appeal was argued by Marshall, an attorney and the grandson of a slave, who, in 1967, would become the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice.

Decades later, McCready remembers details of Marshall's summation, and smiles. "He was brilliant," she says. "He argued that the University of Maryland was a state school supported by taxes, and that Negro people pay taxes, too."

The Maryland Court of Appeals' decision was handed down in April 1950. McCready had won.


The teenage girl known as Irish Nell was so much in love with a slave on the adjoining plantation that she would give up anything to marry her true love. Even her freedom.

Even their future children's freedom.

In 1681, Nell -- she was born Eleanor Butler -- was a 16-year- old indentured servant, a white woman working as a laundress in Maryland for the third Lord Baltimore. One day, she told her employer that she planned to wed the man identified in court records as "Negro Charles."

"Lord Baltimore told her what would happen and warned her not to do it," says Agnes Kane Callum, a direct descendant of the couple. "She didn't listen. They were married by a Catholic priest. They had seven or eight children. The whole family was the property of Charles' master."

That's just one of the fascinating stories that Callum, 80, unearthed while painstakingly preparing her family's genealogical chart, on display in the Lewis Museum's permanent collection.

Callum, a Baltimorean, began preparing the chart in 1968 while taking a black history course at Morgan State University.

The course introduced her to genealogy, one of the consuming passions of her life. She spent decades tracing her family on her mother's side to 1681, and her family on her father's side to 1793.

"I never thought it would go this far," she says.

In the early 1970s, Callum, then over 50, was named a Fulbright Scholar and spent a year studying in Ghana. She is about to publish the 25th annual issue of the black genealogical journal she started in 1982, Flower of the Forrest. And she is at work on her 10th book of history and genealogy.

She has a seemingly endless supply of powerful anecdotes, including the one about another former slave ancestor who was sold at auction at Howard and Fayette streets in 1835.

But a favorite remains the story of Nell and Charles.

It seemed that Lord Baltimore was troubled by Nell's predicament, and petitioned the Provincial Assembly to change the law to guarantee that no white woman would ever be forced into slavery.

According to the slave laws, the legal status of the children was determined by their mother's status. "A free mother would have free children, and an enslaved mother's children would be slaves," Callum says.

In 1710, Charles and Nell's grandchildren used that law to sue for their freedom.

At about the time of the Revolutionary War, they won.


The four brass service medals are nestled in velvet. They're no big deal, Louis Diggs says, no different from those received by thousands of other veterans of the Korean War.

But this small handful of metal and cloth represents enormous changes in the way the U.S. military treats African-American soldiers, and that's why Diggs' medals are on display at the Lewis Museum.

In 1950, Diggs joined an all-black Maryland National Guard unit, the 231st Transportation Truck Battalion. Several months later, it became the first Guard unit in the nation to be shipped to Korea.

"When our Guard unit traveled through Virginia, we could not stop on the road to get anything to eat," says Diggs, 73, of Owings Mills. "No one would serve us."

Overseas, the indignities continued: There were separate lines for white and black soldiers at the Army PX. Black soldiers ate last. When black colleagues in other units paraded past top commanders, the band played "Old Black Joe" for them. Marching tunes were played for white soldiers.

But that wasn't the worst part.

"If you were driving down a road and you saw a tank coming at you, you'd get out of the way fast," Diggs says. "Even if they were on our side. Otherwise, they'd fire at you."

There were few opportunities for ambitious young black men in Baltimore in the 1950s, so Diggs re-enlisted. And kept re-enlisting until he'd spent 20 years in the Army, eventually achieving the rank of sergeant first class. Diggs was posted to Japan, Germany and, for several years, Baltimore, where he had a dream job overseeing ROTC programs at Morgan State University. Now, he writes history books about black families who lived in Baltimore County.

Slowly, things began to change, as integration policies ordered in the 1940s by then-President Harry S. Truman took effect. In 1955, Diggs' formerly all-black National Guard unit was integrated and became the 229th Transportation Battalion. During the Vietnam War, he said, racial discrimination in the Army was finally put to rest.

"Things changed when we got to know each other," he said. "It's important for young people today to know what the older veterans went through."

As Diggs says, his service medals are identical to those worn by thousands of other Army veterans.

And that's the point.


What: The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture

When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Where: 830 E. Pratt St.

In brief: Continuous events include outside dancing, music and storytelling.

Admission: $5 (This weekend only.)

Call: 443-263-1800

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