Opening Doors to Black History: Maryland Museums Preserve Vitality, Achievements by Its People of Color

Article excerpt

In 1863, William H. Butler, a "free person of color" bought one of the most stylish town houses on Duke of Gloucester Street, a short distance from the Maryland state capitol in Annapolis. He went on to develop five more properties and serve on the Annapolis City Council.

John Maynard bought a nearby building, tripled its value and later purchased and freed his wife, her daughter and his mother-in-law.

The two men were leaders in a community of free blacks, but they weren't unusual. Before the Civil War, Maryland had more free blacks than any other state.

Travel around Maryland today and you'll find the same entrepreneurial energy shown by those men. Yet now it's channeled into celebrating the black experience throughout the state.

A new museum in Baltimore captures the vitality of life on "the Avenue," where Billie Holliday and Cab Calloway made the Royal Theater the hottest venue in town for live jazz. A church in Annapolis showcases black American art, thanks to preservationists and black leaders who saved the building from the county government's wrecking ball.

Museums and exhibits show up in the most unlikely places - the Town Center at Columbia, for example, where a housewife started the Maryland Museum of African Art. At the Prince George's County Stadium, baseball fans can learn about the stars of the Mid-Atlantic Negro Leagues. They honor the almost-forgotten as well as the legendary figures familiar to any schoolchild. At Watkins Regional Park in Prince George's County, a small exhibit documents the lives of black watermen, including Frederick Douglass. A potato chip, along with other inventions of black Americans, is on display at a Howard County museum.

JAZZ, SIT-INS AND BLACK JOCKEYS IN BALTIMORE

On April 12, near the Inner Harbor, an exhibit titled "I Am the City" will re-create the sights and sounds of the city's black experience in the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, which is one of several of the city's so-called "life museums." The exhibition takes up the entire second floor and tells Baltimore's story in three stages: city by the water (late 18th to mid-19th century) city of neighborhoods (mid-19th to mid-20th century) and city and suburbs (to the present).

A huge mural portrays street life on Pennsylvania Avenue, the center of activity during the city's black cultural renaissance of the 1930s and '40s. Interpreters dressed as celebrities such as Billie Holliday bring the scene to life.

Next door, in the office of the Afro-American Newspaper, a typewriter rests on the editor's desk; nearby are clippings from the country's oldest continuously published black-owned newspaper.

Staff members say exhibits won't focus only on the good of the so-called good old days. Visitors can step inside a reconstructed White Tower restaurant, where interpreters dressed as waiters and waitresses of the 1950s and '60s will talk about the picketing and sit-ins that challenged the company's segregationist policies.

Climb the stairs to the third floor, where the Community Gallery documents history in the making. Children living in Jonestown, a neighborhood near the museum, received cameras and directions to photograph their neighborhood.

The results - along with a mural composed of drawings of how they'd like to see their neighborhood - line the walls.

The Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, 800 E. Lombard St., Baltimore 21202. 410/396-3524. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

Join a Black Landmarks Tour for another version of Baltimore. Developed by the African-American Heritage Society, the bus tour covers well-known historic sites and exhibits such as the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the NAACP headquarters.

You'll learn what's happening in the city right now. Guides point out the homes of the city's black elite, tell you who's likely to benefit from the recent infusion of federal funds to Empowerment Zones and describe battles over school busing. …