Blacks in Wax can teach history to all races

Volunteers/Where good neighbors get together

March 05, 1991|By Ellen Hawks | Ellen Hawks,Evening Sun Staff

ALL RACES CAN learn about and appreciate the contributions of blacks at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, America's first such museum.

Dedicated to the study and preservation of African-American history, it is an educational and cultural center where scenic displays with life-size and lifelike wax figures offer the visitor a positive presentation of history including the struggles, achievements and contributions of African experiences.

Established by college professors Elmer and Joanne Martin in 1983 in a building on Saratoga Street, it was relocated in October 1988 to a renovated building at 1601 E. North Ave. (Phone 563-3404).

More than 100 wax figures, special lighting, sound effects and animation take the visitor through 3,000 years of history. The exhibit includes ''the largest elephant you've ever seen,'' says volunteer Jackie Williams, who coordinates the museum's volunteer staff.

The life-size pachyderm is carrying Hannibal and is in the center of the main lobby. From there, throughout the museum's halls, people and events are presented chronologically, highlighting ancient Africa, the Middle Passage, slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, Harlem renaissance, civil rights and more.

Williams is an exuberant supporter of the museum. Her interest ''began when a friend asked me to go there for a tour. Just one time through and I knew it was where I wanted to be. Those who see it will know what I mean,'' says Williams, whose hobbies are ''the museum and collecting African art.

''At the museum, where I spend much of my time, I do what is needed,'' she says, ''including working on the traveling exhibit, which we take to churches and schools or any organization requesting it. And I'm not above crawling into a few displays and polishing shoes,'' she laughs.

Williams, 39, lives in the city with her son, 20-year-old Troy Williams. She works at the Social Security Administration and he works for Progress Unlimited and helps care for handicapped individuals,'' she says.

African and American history unfold in the museum along with ancient figures such as Hannibal and the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton, who was one of the first men to promote the belief of one god.

Maryland figures there include Parren Mitchell, Benjamin Banneker, Clarence Blount, Billie Holiday and Eubie Blake.

With each exhibit comes a fascinating history, including, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and educators Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune. In one display, Bessie Coleman is flying in her airplane; Rosa Parks is being dragged from a transit bus in another. You'll see the Rev. Andrew Bryan, who founded the first black Baptist church. The wax figures are made by a minority company in California.

The museum's volunteer board of trustees is headed by Elmer Martin, professor at Morgan State University. His wife, Joanne Martin, a professor at Coppin State, is the executive director. The museum's director is D. Tulani Salahu-Din and there is a full-time staff of four.

''Jackie is the most enthusiastic and committed volunteer coordinator any museum could have,'' says Salahu-Din. ''She is extremely skilled in organization and in communicating with people.''

As in any museum, volunteers are essential for fund-raising programs, in promotion, for special events and for educational and other programs for adults and youth. Also there is a need for office workers.

Williams wants volunteers for every need. Teachers would be welcome. ''Youngsters come to the museum each day after school for classes on African-American history, and they do their homework here. Students from Morgan State, Coppin or the University of Baltimore give us support, but we would welcome more.''

Docents are needed for visitors' tours, including the school children who come throughout the year and the seniors who often come in groups.

At present there are about 30 volunteers and more would be welcome. To volunteer to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, call Jackie Williams at 298-1295 after 3:30 p.m. or at the museum at 563-6414.

Museum hours are: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. Admission is $4.50 general; $4 seniors and college students with ID; $3 ages 12 to 17 and $2.50 ages 2 to 11. There is a 10 percent discount for groups of 10 or more.

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