The Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

By Mary Gallagher

The history of Baltimore and African Americans reaches back to the beginning of United States’ history. Before the Civil War, Baltimore (pop. 100,000) was home to the largest community of free blacks in the nation, more than 25,000, while its slave population was slightly over 2,000. In the late nineteenth century, blacks in the city worked as laundresses and laborers, stevedores and seamstresses.

At the same time, the city also had prominent communities of African American pastors, barbers, caterers, newspaper editors, bankers, lawyers, physicians, shop owners, grocers, teachers and civil servants. From this base Baltimore became and remains a hub of African American culture, scholarship, business and religion.

It was probably in 1992 or 1993, only ten years after its establishment, that I made my first visit to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. Recently, I went back to see it again and witness its extraordinary success and plans for a dynamic future.

This unique museum, the first one of wax in Baltimore and the first wax museum of African American history in the nation, was the brainchild of Drs. Elmer and Joanne Martin. Unique because it is a wax museum committed solely to the study and preservation of African American history through its presentation of life-size, life-like wax figures highlighting historical and contemporary personalities of African ancestry.

My friend and I found many details and facts that were previously unknown to us and raised our interest to learn more about these historically important persons. It was also fun to see them depicted as life size wax mannequins, sometimes with a creative but endearing artistic hand. It’s easy to spend several hours at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and on my most recent visit two large tour busses and several vans of visitors were present mid- week attesting to the public’s strong interest.

It only took the museum two years to outgrow its original location and with the assistance of a $100,000 matching grant and a newly-formed Board of Trustees launching a fund-raising campaign, they searched for a larger building.

It is important to know that the Martins objectives in establishing the museum were far more reaching into community consciousness than just having a wax museum. They believed community and cultural development go hand in hand. We’ve all seen examples of this premise in similar cities around the nation and unfortunately though some failed that is certainly not the case here.

Primarily the Martins sought to and have become a dynamic cultural and educational institution that stimulates interest in African American heritage by revealing the little-known, often-neglected facts of that history.

The enrichment of the lives of youth was a primary motivation for establishing The Great Blacks in Wax Museum not just an entertainment venue providing a casual ho-hum stroll through another historical moment. Youth can become involved at an early age and continue in various positions as they grow older. The opportunities for young people include volunteer and intern programs that often providing a safe haven for at-risk youths. If you have ever done work or volunteered in any programs involving at-risk youth, you know the tremendous raw talent and potential they have just waiting for guidance, positive reinforcement and intellectual stimulation.

The following statements of purpose were the force behind the decision to relocate the Museum in 1988 to a fragile community in East Baltimore. Here the institution could serve as a catalyst for community revitalization.

1. To use great leaders as role models to motivate youth to achieve
2. To improve race relations by dispelling myths of racial inferiority and superiority
3. To support and work in conjunction with other nonprofit, charitable organizations seeking to improve the social and economic status of African Americans

On my first visit ten years ago, we were puzzled at the location of the museum and concerned that visitors would drive up to the East Baltimore area, look around, lock their car doors and go back to the Inner Harbor. Today it is a neighborhood in transition, perhaps not as quickly as we would all like but the changes are evident. Unfortunately renewal frequently means vacant buildings, boarded up for a time, awaiting rehabilitation. Do not let the area deter you, in fact you’ll start gazing at all these stunning historical properties, and, as we all do, think, “What a wonderful renovation I could create.”

Between 1985 and 1987, the City of Baltimore awarded Great Blacks In Wax $300,000 in grants and loans and designated an unused fire station at 1601 East North Avenue for the museum’s development and expansion. The entire block including the firehouse, a Victorian Mansion, and two former apartment dwellings, when renovated, will provide nearly 30,000 square feet of exhibit and office space. Through the blending of new design, preservation and restoration of existing architectural structures, and significant landscape improvements the livability of the neighborhood will be enhanced.

In looking at a Baltimore city map, one cannot help but notice the East Baltimore corridors advantageous urban location. The Great Blacks in Wax museum is a serious contributor to the areas economic opportunity by helping to provide a spirit of renewal and vitality.

During African American history month in 1984, at its original location, the museum received nearly 2,000 students from city and county schools and about 2,500 during that period in 1985, as well as visitors and tour groups from Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. The museum has proven that tourism can thrive in a nontraditional setting. The number of visitors had more than quadrupled to 275.000 in 2000.

Inside are over 100 wax figures and scenes, a full model slave ship exhibit telling the powerful 400 year history of the Atlantic Slave Trade, a compelling exhibit on the role of youth in making history, a Maryland room highlighting the contributions of outstanding Marylanders to African American history, sharecroppers exhibit, a gift shop, and a mini auditorium for lectures, films, and dramatic presentations. The large figure of an elephant and Hannibal in the main lobby are an exciting start for the younger set.

If you have the opportunity, I would recommend visiting the museum now—for it’s quaintness as well as historical content and again in a few years after completion of their massive renewal and expansion program. We all like to say “Well I remember when…”

Some of the programs available:

The Youth Advocacy Program provides tutorial, educational, cultural, and social development to youth involved in after school and summer intern programs.

Seeking Cultural Awareness Through Museums is designed to teach adults/parents how to have an enriching museum experience with children, creating future audiences for culture and art institutions. This project consists of “Fun Shop” presentations such as “My Grandmother’s Trunk” in which a presenter demonstrates how she discovered and preserved aspects of her family’s history through the treasures in her grandmother’s attic.

Field trips to related museums such as the District of Columbia’s Frederick Douglass House are offered The Summer Advocacy Program offers neighborhood at-risk youth tutoring opportunities and field trips to other cultural institutions.

The Youth Training and Employment Program offers at-risk youth the ability to create a business concept and develop their entrepreneurial skills while earning income.

Other programs that have been implemented include Tour Guide Development, Internships, and Community Service.

Events for May and June 2003
Mother’s Day Gospel Concert & Banquet
May 17, 2003
For additional information contact:
Travis Henson at 410.563.7809 ext. 102 or Liz Byrd on ext. 105

June 2003
Fathers Day Jazz Concert & Banquet
June 14, 2003
For additional information contact:
Travis Henson at 410.563.7809 ext. 102 or Liz Byrd on ext. 105

Sources

The Great Blacks in Wax Museum
1601-03 East North Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21213
www.greatblacksinwax.org
P: 410.563.3404
P: 410.563.6416
F: 410.675.5040
Entry fee

Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association
100 Light Street, 12th Floor
Baltimore, MD 21202
Phone: 410-659-7301
www.baltconvstr.com
Relating to African American Heritage www.baltconvstr.com/pages/visit_af_am.htm

Maryland Office of Tourism Development
217 East Redwood Street, 9th Floor
Baltimore, MD 21202
Cherish African-American Culture tour
www.mdisfun.org
To speak to a Maryland
Travel Operator, please call
1-800-MDISFUN (1-800-634-7386)

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