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Breaking the Mold

As African-American Museums Boom, Great Blacks in Wax Keeps Showing and Telling Black History on its Own Terms

Christopher Myers
Still Life: Great Blacks In Wax president and CEO Joanne Martin leads a tour through the museum she co-founded with her husband, Elmer Martin, in 1983.
Christopher Myers
Thinking Outside The Box: T.A. Stephens, director of education for the Reginald E. Lewis Museum, says the new museum hopes to "be partners with our other sister institutions in the city
Christopher Myers
Facts and Figures: Karen Page leads a group from Severna Park Rose of Sharon Church through the museum.
Christopher Myers
Pieces Of Hate:Wax replicas of lynching "souvenirs"
Christopher Myers
Part of the slave ship exhibit.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/18/2004

"Temptilatin', appetitin'" utters the kerchief-headed black woman. "Sho' hits the spot!"

Or so says Aunt Jemima, the grinning pitchwoman for the eponymous brand of pancake products. Here she's doing her ain't-she-lovable, language-mangling "mammy" thing in a mid-20th-century magazine advertisement.

The vintage ad hangs in the lobby of the Great Blacks in Wax museum, a 21-year-old institution carved out of an erstwhile firehouse at 1601 E. North Ave. And Jemima's now sadly iconic visage--African-American as a cheerfully ignorant domestic--just happens to be one of the reasons why there is a Great Blacks in Wax museum. It aims to put a more truthful face--physically and figuratively--on African-Americans, both the historical challenges they've faced and the societal contributions they've made. And most often the face just happens to made out of beeswax.

The museum--home to some 150 wax figures of prominent and important Africans and African-Americans--bills itself as "America's first black history wax museum." And that it is. (Though with others now up running in Harlem and St. Louis, it's no longer the only black history wax museum.) The venue's slogan also promises that it will be "[t]aking you through the pages of time." This it does, too. And the trip, far from the politic survey of history usually prominent in museums, often reveals things even more disturbing than the racially dismissive imagery used to peddle pancake mix.

Follow the sign with the hand-colored arrow reading enter slave ship here. Walk down a creaking set of wooden stairs and encounter a sneering white man in a striped shirt straddling a naked black woman. He's branding her on the arm as his property. Saunter on from here, and as your eyes adjust to dimness of simulated lamplight, you make out dozens and dozens of naked brown figures piled about each other like so much firewood in the bowels of a slave-loaded sailing vessel, circa 200 years ago.

Then there's the lynching exhibit down in the basement, with its disemboweled, castrated, and burned figures. And the updated twist on these evils of yore--a skeletal, gun-brandishing teenager in a simulated graffiti-lined alley beneath the trenchant message "Today We Lynch Ourselves."

It's a relief to come up from this pair of subterranean galleries to wander the museum's main floors, with their waxen who's who of black achievers. Of course, there are universal black icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman. But the figures run a centuries-spanning gamut, from regally clad African ruler Imhotep (circa 2980 B.C.) to the first black astronauts (Mae Jemison and Guion Bluford) posed within a simulated spaceship. There's rodeo star Bill Pickett (1871-1932), the first black to make the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, and pioneering black polar explorer Matthew Henson (1866-1955), whose figure is partially obscured by a massive stuffed polar bear. Statesmen meet musicians meet civil-rights leaders meet ballplayers in these meandering halls.

Well over a million people have traipsed among this artful assemblage of fake black folk--more than 200,000 do so now each year, including nearly 70,000 school-age children. These are heady numbers for an institution orphaned in a hardscrabble stretch of East Baltimore, much less a wax museum. While the concept of creating wax figures dates back to the ancient Egyptians, the wax show concept hit its peak around the turn of the 19th century and is now generally on the wane as a popular tourist attraction. Most of the remaining wax shows around today focus on celebrities (see, Movieland Wax museum, Buena Park, Calif.) or cartoonish fun (see, House of Frankenstein Wax Museum, Lake George, N.Y.).

Great Blacks has reshaped this old-school approach to its own ends, however, and, in the process, grown from an itinerant assemblage of figures carted around to shopping malls to a 1,200-square-foot downtown storefront to the current facility, with some 15,000 square feet of exhibit and office space. Far from waning, this wax attraction plans to keep growing. A $60 million, two-phase expansion plan is in the works; the project calls for the museum to ultimately engulf its entire city block. Designs call for new exhibit and gallery space, a theater, and a restaurant, as well such practicalities as bus parking and elevators and ramps to better accommodate disabled visitors.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-7th) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski have federal legislation working its way through Washington that would provide the museum with up to $15 million toward its fund-raising goal. The city and state combined have offered up around $5 million. Grants and donations must make up the rest.

But Great Blacks is not by itself in dollar-chasing growth plans. The partially complete five-story concrete hulk looming over the intersection of Pratt and President streets at the gateway to Little Italy and Fells Point may not be much to look at now, but soon the exterior will be swathed in a vibrant mix of glass, stone, brick, and metal. If all goes according to plan, it will open in 2005 as the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, an 82,000-square-foot institution devoted to the state's rich black history. It will be the largest African-American museum on the East Coast.

The Lewis Museum, which is named for the hugely successful Baltimore-born lawyer/businessman who died in 1993, and whose like-named foundation donated $5 million to the project, is but the most prominent manifestation of more than $500 million that recently has been, soon will be, or hopefully may be invested in African-American museums and culture centers in the Mid-Atlantic region alone. Fells Point's $12 million Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park is scheduled to open later this year. The 6-year-old Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella, devoted to the Maryland-born mathematician/astronomer/surveyor, is currently slated to make some $1.3 million in improvements. Over in Annapolis, the Banneker-Douglass Museum, which honors black Marylanders, recently completed a $5.5 million expansion. This past December, President George W. Bush signed legislation green-lighting the creation of a National Museum of African-American History and Culture on or near the National Mall, just down Interstate 95 in Washington; the museum will join the Smithsonian Institution family, and the federal government is committed to funding half of the estimated $200 million development costs. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum Center for African-American History and Culture in Southeast D.C. completed a $8.5 million expansion last year. And two hours south of Washington, in Fredericksburg, Va., former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder is leading the charge to erect a $100 million to $200 million National Slavery Museum by 2007.

With the accomplishments and contributions of black people long shunted aside, this wealth of developments should go along way towards completing a heretofore gap-filled picture of the nation's history. All these grand plans, however, are attempting to move ahead amid shrinking public coffers and a nationwide, post-Sept. 11 economic malaise that finds arts and culture institutions festering in the fund-raising doldrums.

Where does Great Blacks in Wax figure in this cash-dependent cultural venue explosion? Can a homegrown museum tucked away in the 'hood--and one using a less-than-cutting-edge museum medium--compete for visitors, donations, and prominence?

Well, to see what the future might hold for this curious, grass-roots institution, you have to know where it's been. And for that journey you need to meet Joanne Martin.

Great Blacks in Wax's firehouse home was built in 1919, which explains its handsome vintage tin ceiling. It's most visible in the museum's second-floor meeting room, used for everything from poetry slams to lectures to parties. It's here that Martin, a sturdy, well-spoken, middle aged woman in a stylish blue suit, takes a seat on a metal folding chair to wax about her wax museum.

As president and chief executive officer, she's the driving force behind the museum today. But the first thing she articulates is that Great Blacks was really the brainchild of her late husband, Elmer Martin.

"Everything you see here today is because of Elmer," she says. "All of my black consciousness came from him. This museum came from him."

Elmer Martin died of heart attack in June 2001 while the couple was on research trip to Egypt. Joanne Martin has been forced to fill his shoes, and she candidly admits that it's a herculean task.

But let's flash back to the early 1980s, when the Martins were leading a comfortable middle-class life: He was a professor of social work at Morgan State University, she an administrator at Coppin State College. However, Elmer Martin, who had marched and protested in heart of the 1960s civil-rights battle, was restless. He was disturbed to see that so much of the earlier era's drive for social change had fizzled out. The younger generation he encountered on campus and elsewhere seemed to have lost contact with the struggle. Far from embracing the Black Is Beautiful credo, too many youths were still mired in a Black Is Bad mind-set.

Inspiration often sprouts from the unlikeliest places, and for the Martins it came from a Florida wax museum the pair visited while on vacation. Where other tourists might have seen a few waxen figures crowding a roadside attraction, the Martins saw potential agents of change.

"So much of black history has been faceless," Joanne Martin explains. "The wax medium fills a need and gives history a concreteness. You don't have to deal with abstractions--it's something you can grab hold to and learn from."

Back in Maryland, the pair "began just calling around" looking to acquire some wax figures--some black wax figures. ("There was no such thing as a wax-figure supermarket," Martin laughs.) As it turned out, there was (and still is) a major wax/plastic figure maker in Baltimore--Dorfman Museum Figures Inc., out on Holabird Avenue.

With money they had saved to make a down payment on a house, the Martins commissioned Dorfman to make four wax figures: Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner. (Well, Dorfman made just the heads; the Martins used cast off department store mannequins for the bodies.) At around $4,500 each, the figures were expensive enough that the couple had to buy the likenesses on layaway--like one might a refrigerator. They then trucked the quartet around in a Pontiac hatchback, setting them up wherever they could--from shopping malls to church basements. Then they'd haul the figures back to a two-bedroom apartment in Randallstown where, a grinning Martin says, "We'd have Mary McLeod's head on a dresser and Frederick Douglass' torso over in a corner."

The unwieldy arrangement got to be too much for Joanne Martin, who told her husband, "You've got to choose between me and Mary McLeod."

This lead to the renting of a small storefront on the 200 block of West Saratoga Street. On July 9, 1983, the Martins hung a handmade banner announcing the grand opening of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. As it happens, a Washington-bound group of gospel singers spied the sign. "Right out of the gate we had a bus load of people who came to see what we had to offer," Martin recalls.

After the initial augur of success, summer turned to winter, and the tourist high season fell into its cold-month lows. Though both Martins still had their day jobs, financing the fledgling museum--which now featured some 20 different figures--became a strain.

"We ended up having to pawn my wedding ring," Martin says. "But we felt we had to make a success of it. Money was never that important. We had black children that needed to have a sense of their place in history."

The Little Museum That Could soon caught on--and caught the eye of public officials, who began to open the purse strings. In 1985, state Sen. Clarence Blount (D-Baltimore City) introduced a bill awarding the Martins a $100,000 matching grant. (A wax figure of Blount is now on display at the museum.) The Martins closed the Saratoga Street location later in 1985 to concentrate on fund raising, compiling over $300,000 in other monies, public and private, by 1987.

In 1988, they moved into the east-side firehouse, a surplus city property. Some 44,000 visitors found their way to the off-the-beaten path location in the very first year. Additional wax figures were sought from makers across the country, with the price tag per-figure rising to $10,000 a piece or more for the detailed, hand-sculpted re-creations. Not only did the museum exhibits expand, but they got more ambitious--Martin describes her husband padding about the building with an omnipresent legal pad, sketching ideas for new displays. The slave ship was added in 1993. The explicit lynching exhibit came on-line in '97.

These exhibits are still the museum's most arresting sections today, and with good reason. In the slave ship exhibit, text beneath headings such as "Sickness, Disease, and Death," "Thirst, Starvation," and "Beheading as Means of Control" details the privations of the middle passage. The lynching exhibit features severed body parts in jars. When the Chicago Sun-Times did a piece on the museum that year, it dubbed the lynching exhibit "gorier than any sideshow's chamber of horrors," adding that "the atrocities depicted overwhelm the museum's less dramatic central theme, which is to immortalize the accomplishments of blacks."

Martin makes no apologies for the graphic (albeit waxen) depictions of brutalizations that make up the lynching lesson or, for that matter, the horrors within the dim and dismal slave ship.

"My husband said if we're going to continue to tell black children that they should have an appreciation for the struggle, we have to give them a yardstick by which to measure the struggle--and the lynching exhibit is one of those yardsticks," she says. "You can't very well say that Frederick Douglass is a man of accomplishment if you have no sense of what he had to overcome." (The museum advises parental guidance for the more graphic exhibits, and discourages children under 12 from visiting the lynching exhibit.)

As the museum continued to grow and develop in the '90s, then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke approached the Martins with the idea of moving their operation downtown to the Brokerage. The pair politely refused. They were dedicated to their largely impoverished, largely black neighborhood and wanted the museum to be a beacon of inspiration and potential there.

"Our decision is not easy for some people to understand to this day," Martin says. "But they can only see what North Avenue is at present. There's a transformation going on here, and we want to be a part of that transformation."

Then there's Martin's belief that the museum's warts-and-all history lessons might be too much for the happy harbor area--that tourists, fresh from a spin in a paddle boat, might not be ready to ponder beheaded and burned bodies.

Now, of course, an African-American museum is coming to the harbor area. the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

"We're all about trying to tell an untold story," Martin says. "It's not just about Great Blacks in Wax, Reginald Lewis, or any of the others. The more history we can tell that hasn't yet been disseminated in all its richness, the better off we'll all be."

But when it comes to telling its story, the Lewis museum appears to have a financial leg up. In addition to the $33 million that Maryland is spending to build the museum, the state is signed on to provide 75 percent of the museum's operating budget for the first two years of operation, and from then on to cover half the annual operating costs. (In contrast, Martin says admissions largely cover her museum's operating expenses, with the lion's share of donations and grants going toward expansion.)

The Lewis Museum is also halfway to its goal of privately raising $20 million for a museum endowment. In December, Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones, and Montel Williams, among others, flew in for a Lewis Museum gala fund raiser at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Though Martin says she doesn't like to "see it as a competition," her museum is likely going to go head-to-head with more high-profile institutions such as the Lewis Museum in pursuit of private, corporate, and foundation donations and grants.

Asked how much she's initially seeking for the planned Great Blacks expansion, Martin deadpans, "$25 million would be nice." When probed as to how fund-raising efforts are going, however, she keeps rather mum, saying that a public announcement will be made in May, when artists renderings and architectural plans for the expanded museum will be unveiled. "They will show what can happen when you allow a museum to be a catalyst for revitalization," she says of the forthcoming plans. "They will show what North Avenue can look like."

One thing she's not worried about is that her waxen approach to history might be a handicap in this high-tech era.

"We've taken a medium that has worked for ages and present it differently," Martin says. "We tell very serious history through the wax medium, and that's unique. And the uniqueness is what allowed us to survive. I don't worry about competition. We've learned a few things in 20 years. When I pawned my ring it might have been a time to give this up. But we're still here."

The only people working in the Reginald E. Lewis Museum at present are construction workers. The museum's directors and staff are holed up in rented office space just a few blocks away. Among them is T.A. Stephens, the emerging museum's director of education. He has seen the plethora of African-American museums on the rise and facilities struggling to open or expand and acknowledges that there is "anxiety" among his peers over funding issues.

"It's really a coincidence that all of these things are happening at about the same time," he says, noting that his institution's roots go back 10 years, when a state commission on African-American history formed by the Department of Housing and Community Development first explored the idea. "The national African-American project that will be associated with the Smithsonian has been going on since almost 1917."

Construction of the Lewis Museum should be complete by July, at which time exhibit designers and curators will get busy. A ribbon cutting by early next year is planned. Stephens is hopeful that an improving economy will lessen financial fears.

"We are all colleagues in opening different chapters of a long story of African-American history or American history," Stephens says, echoing Martin. "We all need to be mindful that, however neglected we were in the past, we have a great opportunity now. What we need is synergy between all the local and national projects."

Toward that aim, he says his museum is ready to "be partners with our other sister institutions in the city." He talks of bus loads of schoolchildren visiting Great Blacks in Wax in the morning and the Lewis Museum in the afternoon.

"We don't see ourselves as a competitors, though some people may feel we are competing with other institutions," Stephens says. "I think every museum and project will need to establish its own niche story it wants tell to the public, and also find its own niche of funding."

For Louis Fields, executive director of the Baltimore African-American Tourism Council, it's not so much a matter of adding attractions, as getting the word out that they are there.

"Do we have product for African-Americans or others who want to see history?" Fields asks. "Yes, we do have product. And another museum--that's fine. At some point in time we must turn our attention to the promotion of our product."

From his perspective, this means state and local tourist boards need to divert some of their attention away from the Convention Center and a handful of long-touted neighborhoods to focus more on the region's historical offerings--African-American or otherwise.

One thing is seems certain: The black tourist is an increasing--and increasingly sought after--segment of the travel trade. The Washington-based Travel Association of America reports that between 2000 and 2002 the volume of African-American travel grew at twice the rate of American travel overall.

Nancy Hinds, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, says her group has been tailoring marketing efforts to the black tourist trade for "about three and a half years," and has distributed 250,000 copies of the 36-page promotional booklet Discover Baltimore: A Guide to African American Attractions. "The [guide] goes out to tour group operators, family reunion planners, African-American convention planners--a wide a array of people," Hinds says. Out of the association's total $8.9 million budget for 2004, $216,000 will spent targeting black tourists.

"Part of our promotion efforts within the next year will be talking about the new products coming on line," Hinds says. "The Reginald Lewis Museum will be a part of that promotion effort. Obviously it's huge for the city and will be a very big draw."

Philip Merrill, co-author of the 1999 book Black Baltimore, says "after a long winter's nap, we've come out of hibernation" in regards to the increased interest in African-American history and culture. But as a collector and appraiser of African-American artifacts (seen on PBS's Antiques Roadshow TV program) and a consultant to museums (including Great Blacks in Wax and the Smithsonian), Merrill notes that, beyond competing for funding and visitors, some of the museums may end up competing for objects to display.

"There's a plethora of African-American museums popping up, not just in this area but all across the country," Merrill says. "One question I have is, where are they going to get authentic content? With all the museums going after the same pieces of the pie, at some point they may come to a logjam."

Stephens says his museum is "just beginning to put together" the artifacts that will be displayed. Objects, he says, will be coming "from a variety of sources" including the defunct City Life Museums' collection and loans from the Maryland Historical Society. (Though Martin said she'd welcome the inclusion of more genuine artifacts at Great Blacks in Wax, as a museum employing wax figures and fabricated tableaus, the hunt for artifacts is one area of potential institutional competition she's not directly involved with.)

In the end, Merrill evokes the words of a famed black American in describing the pressing need for unity and cooperation within his increasingly crowded field.

"Booker T. Washington said if you are just a thumb and you try to get something done it's very hard," Merrill says. "But when you bring those other four digits together you have that whole hand, and more gets accomplished. Now, this sounds great in theory, but trying to get it implemented--that's the challenge."

Meanwhile, back at Great Blacks in Wax, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Karen Page leads a 25-member youth group from the Severna Park Rose of Sharon Church through the waxen assemblage. The young visitors range in age from 3 to 22.

"I'd like the children to learn about our ancestry," says Page, in explaining what brought her to East Baltimore from Anne Arundel County. "We only learn about a few people, like Martin Luther King. But there are a lot of others that have helped us along the way."

And does the use of wax figures work in this regard? It's not a hoary has-been gimmick?

"Well, we've never gotten to see their faces," Page says.

"There's Jesse Owens," she adds, motioning toward a medal-bedecked figure of the Olympic runner and Adolf Hitler mocker. "Now I see him. We didn't get to meet these people. Now we can see how they looked when they were alive."

Elmer Martin probably couldn't have put it any better.

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