Celebrate black history with an imaginative tour

January 31, 1994|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore can claim a rich black history. Before the Civil War, it had the largest population of free African-Americans of any urban center in this country. Its black churches, neighborhoods, schools stretch back for generations.

Black History Month, which begins tomorrow, places this cultural heritage in the spotlight. Many Baltimoreans, however, don't know their own city. For those who'd like to learn more about its African-American history, here's a suggested tour of shrines the city toasts this month.

The Great Blacks in Wax Museum, which lives up to its billing as a "highly unique experience," makes a good starting-off point.

The nation's first black wax museum is located outside downtown in an old fire house at 1601 E. North Ave. at Bond Street. It is across the street from the former Sears Roebuck building, which is now a state court and office complex.

Wax museums are by nature curious, gutsy, off-center places, out of the mainstream of the museum world. This spot lives up to that take-chances standard. The museum presents a large and comprehensive view that is sharply distinctive from the city's other Afro-American history sites. The figures and their settings have an immediate impact. Some are uncanny in the accuracy of their likenesses. Others are not as well-rendered, but the overall effect is amazing, direct and strong.

Some of the wax figures have been visited by the people they depict. Rosa Parks, for example, suggested a pair of eyeglasses be placed on her wax likeness because she was wearing them the day she refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., public transit bus. Former Rep. Shirley Chisholm gave a winter and summer suit outfit.

The 43 separate exhibits -- most about the size of a department store window -- feature everything from anonymous slaves on a ship bound for America to such well-known people as Nelson Mandela and former Congressman Parren J. Mitchell.

The show here begins in the lobby, with a huge elephant with Hannibal on top. Individual scenes include the Ancient World, Islamic Heritage, the Colonial Period, the Underground Railroad, the Christian Tradition, Civil War Heroes, the Western Frontier, the Black Labor Movement, Scientists and Inventors, the Jim Crow Era and a second-floor section devoted to Maryland figures.

This house of wax does not edit out the hardships of the African-American experience.

The slave ship re-creation, for example, may be too graphic for small children. Visitors walk down steps into the hold of a slaving vessel and through a chamber packed full of shackled Africans bound for America. One exhibit has sailors force-feeding a slave by ramming a funnel down his throat.

Another section of the museum contains two water fountains. One is marked "Colored" and the other, "For whites only." A black wax figure bends down to get a drink at the segregated water cooler.

Next stop is the Baltimore City Life Museum's 1840 House.

On a winter day, the basement kitchen and scullery here is cold, humid and dark. A pair of wooden steps rattle as you descend below the bed of Lombard Street into the stone-walled, brick-floored chamber presided over by Gloria Greenwood, a woman who portrays an African-American servant in a Baltimore household typical of the year 1840.

other century

Her character is named Margaret Grant, a mother of five sons who lived in Fells Point, the old neighborhood about seven city blocks to the southeast of the 1840 House. "My sons make wooden bowls and cups that I go around selling from corner to corner for a penny apiece. A penny was a lot of money then. To make extra money and to pay for their education. I also work as a servant in this house. For that I make 50 cents or a dollar a week," she said of the character she plays.

Mrs. Greenwood has been portraying Margaret Grant here for the past five years. For some 32 years before this, she worked at the Merchant's Club on Redwood Street.

"The children love the 1840 House, because it's a hands-on experience where they can touch things. We have 19th-century toys they can play with," she said.

One day last week, she was preparing a roast pork loin dinner in the basement kitchen, one of the several rooms in a house constructed and furnished to assimilate actual living conditions of 150 years ago.

"When I cook, I don't measure. All the food here is real. No plastic stuff."

Each morning she works here, Mrs. Greenwood builds a fire in the basement's fireplace. If she's roasting meat, she places the meat in a tin kitchen, a device that's also known as a reflector oven. It's about the size of a large breadbox and sits about six inches from the burning oak logs.

"They didn't have a built-in oven. That would have cost too much to heat. Wood was expensive, maybe $3 for what we'd call a cord," she said.

The 1840 House is part of a complex at Lombard and Front streets, not far from the east edge of the Inner Harbor, Little Italy and the Flag House Courts Housing Project.

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