Threatened by neglect Black history: Irreplaceable items are allowed to deteriorate as state's preservation efforts lag.

March 25, 1998

CONSIDER the late Verda F. Welcome's 135-year-old Steinway and weep.

Maryland's pioneering senator donated her treasure to the official state repository of African-American history. After a decade of being stored in the basement of a mental hospital, the piano's ivory keys have been stolen; its cabinet is beyond repair.

A Baltimore-made Stieff upright that belonged to Herbert M. Frisby, a custodian of the heritage of Matthew A. Henson and an Arctic explorer in his own right, has also been ruined in a rat-infested storage area.

J. Rodney Little, director of the state's history programs, said the items had simply been forgotten. He said other stored collections are safe.

These examples underscore the sad state of Maryland's efforts to preserve black history.

Even though the Commission on African-American History and Culture was recently reconstituted, it has been without an executive director for a year. The administrator of its Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis has no museum training.

Carroll Hynson, the new chairman of the state commission, acknowledged the situation but said, "We cannot come in and in 90 days rectify all these problems."

This mess was aired in Annapolis recently when a legislative committee heard a request to have a second African-American museum built at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. State agencies, including Mr. Hynson's commission, supported the initiative. But members of a foundation aiding the Banneker-Douglass attacked the proposal, citing "abuse, neglect, mismanagement and deterioration" at the museum.

The example of the ruined pianos justifies part of their anxiety. Maryland's efforts to preserve African-American history have been woefully inadequate.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the General Assembly must correct this, ensuring that no more irreplaceable objects are lost because of neglect by state agencies.

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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