Thirteen-year-old Najee Rollins' hero is not a basketball player or a rap star - he's a business owner who lived in Najee's East Baltimore neighborhood more than 150 years ago.
Yesterday, wearing a brand-new oversized suit, Najee cut the ribbon at the opening of a museum honoring his hero, African-American entrepreneur Isaac Myers, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
"I think that without these men, we wouldn't be where we are today," Najee said after the ceremony, still holding the giant pair of scissors he used to cut the ribbon. "When school is hard, I know I just have to persevere. Isaac Myers went through hard times and came out OK."
The $14 million museum - the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park - opened yesterday in a former sugar warehouse on the water in Fells Point, an area where both of its namesakes once walked. Exhibits highlight Douglass' life - his childhood in slavery in Baltimore and his escape to freedom - and Myers' company, the nation's first African-American-owned shipyard.
The sunny brick warehouse and a newly built addition feature antique shipbuilding tools, handcrafted quilts showing scenes from Douglass' life and a miniature re-creation of Myers' shipyard, which was on Philpot Street in Fells Point.
Life-size statues show Douglass arriving in Baltimore by boat as an 8-year-old boy and escaping to freedom by train as a young man.
"It was life-changing to read Frederick Douglass' autobiography as I sculpted," said Maia Carroll, the figures' creator. "It was only after I read the autobiography that I was able to shape their faces." Carroll said she carved marks under Douglass' shirt to represent whipping scars.
Terri Thrash, a computer software developer who came from New York to attend the museum opening, said that it was important for children to see black faces in museums and to understand the realities of slavery. "It's not whitewashed," Thrash said. "We have very little of this represented across the country."
The museum is a joint project of the Living Classrooms Foundation and the National Historic Seaport of Baltimore. Students who participate in Living Classrooms programs helped build it.
Najee and several of his classmates at Living Classroom's Crossroads Middle School wrote a book about Myers and Douglass that will be sold in the museum gift shop. Teenagers in the Fresh Start program for at-risk boys worked on the museum's floors - made of recycled heart pine salvaged from demolished warehouses - and crafted many of the platforms on which exhibits are displayed.
Fresh Start's Aaron Anderson, 17, said he appreciated the woodworking skills he picked up during the project. He is studying for his GED and driver's license with guidance from Fresh Start.
His classmate, Anthony Bailey, 17, said that he was inspired by Douglass' and Myers' stories. "They stuck with it and that's what people got to do if they want to accomplish something," Bailey said.
A gallery on the third floor of the museum highlights the connections between past, present and future. Local African-American artists were commissioned to create portraits of Myers' original 15 business partners. The portraits, crafted from wood, glass, oil paint and shards of mirror, hang next to photos of current African-American leaders and outstanding students - tomorrow's leaders.
"I think that this is really nice for our kids, because a lot of people don't know our history," said Ivis Burris of Waverly, who visited the museum with her daughter Stacey, 11. "If young people knew the struggles that our ancestors went through, I think that they would be respectful to themselves and others."firstname.lastname@example.org