Connecting past with present

Pointing to a picture of ironworkers in Laurel, Jim Hughes saw his own childhood.

"This building looks like my neighborhood," the 60-year-old said.


An hour later, Robert Greenfield, 78, scanned a list of 35 people lynched in Maryland. "My grandmother's brother should be on here," he said.

A day after the ceremonial opening of the $34 million Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, a flood of visitors descended upon the state's newest attraction. Many of them found personal history inside. And many of them felt obligated to share the experience with their children and relatives.


Hughes and Juinita Manning, 48, brought their family - Shomari Hughes, 9, Jenghis Pettit, 12, and Jessica Thomas, 17. Greenfield plans to return with his three grandchildren. Neshell Corbett brought her 2-year-old daughter, Amourai Mayo.

"She's only 2, but she needs to know," Corbett said.

Yesterday's visitors came from across Maryland and beyond. Bill Vanstory, 58, was visiting from St. Paul, Minn., when he heard about the museum's opening. Like many others, he expressed a sense of pride with the size and stature of the museum.

In years past, he said, African-American history was commemorated by little more than "plopping a little plaque in the ground."

Most guests spent about 90 minutes wandering the museum's 15,000 square feet of exhibits. They watched a brief introductory movie on the second floor and worked their way through an exhibit about the conditions endured by slaves as they journeyed from Africa to the Caribbean.

Docent Norman Watkins told Imani Lambert, 8, how her mother would have reacted had men come to take her away as a slave: "Not my baby. Not my baby."

After completing the slave-shipping exhibit, most visitors climbed to the third floor, where they circled through exhibits about accomplishments of the African-American labor force, civil rights and contributions of black Marylanders to the arts and education.

Hughes and Manning and their family arrived as the museum in the 800 block of E. Pratt St. opened at 10 a.m. She grew up in Baltimore. He was born in rural West Virginia.


He moved to Charles Town, W.Va., was bused to schools in Harpers Ferry and regularly traveled to Annapolis and Washington to play football. He remembered race relations in Maryland.

"If we pulled up at [restaurants], they would tell us to line up at the kitchen," he said. "They wouldn't let us in the front door."

As Hughes and Manning talked and lingered over material about the museum's namesake, their children skipped ahead to a display where they could hold phone-like devices to their ears and hear spoken-word poetry. It reminded Jenghis of the hip-hop music he likes.

Then Jenghis saw a picture of Joshua Johnston. He had completed a school project on the painter.

Next Jenghis explained to his siblings that the letters between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker might appear to contain misspelled words, but the letter that looks like an "f" is a hard "s." He learned that on a field trip to Philadelphia.

As groups crowded around displays, some bonded. Standing before a picture of football great Lenny Moore of the Baltimore Colts, Hughes said, "He was a bad boy."


"Oh yeah," responded Greenfield. "One of the best ever."

As Greenfield, of Silver Spring, meandered through the displays, he carried in his back pocket a cassette-tape recording of his parents discussing his great uncle's lynching. He recorded them in February 1977, and he wondered whether someone might want to hear it yesterday.

He never found his great uncle's name, Ambrose Gross, on the list of lynching fatalities. He figures Gross was one of the nameless victims.

"You look at this list, and you get angry," he said. "Then you're happy for your grandchildren who are not coming up in this kind of world. ... It runs the entire gamut of emotions."