Banneker artifacts sought on loan Oella museum backers want to borrow items bought by D.C. banker

September 23, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

In a room at Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville, bits of stoneware, iron nails and other artifacts from African-American scientific pioneer Benjamin Banneker lay wrapped in plastic and stored in boxes awaiting a home at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella.

But what were to be the crown jewels of that museum -- a table, candlesticks, candle mold and several documents -- were bought at auction two weeks ago by a Washington banker who plans to give them to a monument and visitors center focusing on black Civil War soldiers.

Supporters of the Oella museum are in delicate negotiations with banker Emanuel J. Friedman and organizers of the Civil War monument, to work out a loan of the Banneker items.

They plan to meet with Friedman and organizers of the Civil War monument within two weeks -- and hope to bounce back from their surprise loss at the Bethesda auction this month where Friedman bought the items for $85,000.

"We weren't beaten so badly our spirits were broken," said Ronald L. Sharps, executive director of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and head of the Banneker Artifacts Consortium, which was formed to purchase the items. "There is still hope."

Though he has made no commitments, Friedman -- a former history teacher and chairman of Friedman, Billings and Ramsey, a Rosslyn, Va., investment house -- appears sympathetic to the concerns of Banneker museum supporters.

His chief interest was to keep the pieces from being sold to several owners, he said.

"I respect everything the Banneker people have done," said Friedman, who has pledged the items to the Civil War monument and visitors center being built by his friend Frank Smith Jr., a Washington councilman. "I'm sure a lot of work went into the [Oella] project, and I had no desire to take anything away from them."

The planned $2.5 million Banneker museum and park, to be finished next year, is being built on Banneker's 100-acre homestead, which was purchased by his father in 1737. Banneker grew up there and became a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, inventor and almanac author.

It was also there that Banneker developed a friendship with young George Ellicott and his family, for whom nearby Ellicott City is named.

Impressed with Banneker's thirst for knowledge, the family lent the free black man a few items, including a scarred William and Mary drop-leaf table, a candlestick mold and candlesticks, and books.

Just before Banneker's death in 1806, he instructed his nephews to return the items, with some of his documents, to the Ellicotts. Historians say that as Banneker's casket was lowered into the ground, a fire consumed his log cabin, erasing much of the evidence of the man who became known as the "America's first black man of science."

"There is so little that remains of this wonderful man, and it is important that the items that are associated with him remain here in Maryland," said Nancy Davis, chief curator for the Maryland Historical Society. "It is an issue of being able to use this material for research as well as for display."

Museum supporters are not relying solely on Friedman to provide items for the project.

Richard B. Hughes, chief of the Maryland Office of Archaeology, said the museum also will contain such artifacts as glass and stoneware, wrought iron nails, knives and ceramic pieces recovered from the site of Banneker's farm during archaeological digs in 1983, 1985 and 1986. Those pieces are being held at the hospital in custody of the Historical Trust for Baltimore County, he said.

Supporters also hope that Elizabeth Wilde of Indianapolis -- the Ellicott descendant who originally owned the items bought by Friedman -- will agree to sell other artifacts, including a book containing Banneker's scientific notations.

But there is no doubt that supporters were disappointed by Friedman's surprise purchase of the items.

"We were very eager to get those artifacts," said Sharps. "If Emanuel Friedman had not been bidding, we would have gotten them."

Davis, the historical museum curator, said that she is optimistic that museum supporters will be able to work out an agreement with Friedman and those building the black Civil War veterans monument in Washington.

"From everything that I have heard and read about Mr. Friedman, he sounds like a reasonable person and someone we should be able to work out something with," Davis added. "He seems to really want to keep the pieces together and keep them available for the public."

And Smith, who said he surprised when Friedman purchased the items, said he plans to meet with his lawyers and the Banneker group to discuss lending the artifacts to the Oella museum.

"We are equally interested in what the Banneker people are [interested in] and that is the preservation of history," Smith said.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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