An outstanding exhibit rates a seal of approval Museum: 'Manly Deeds, Womanly Voices' does a masterful job of describing an underlying theme of the black experience in America.

December 10, 1998|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Fatti Maschii Parole Femine," reads the Maryland State Seal, carrying the motto of its founders, the Calvert family: "Manly deeds, womanly voices."

Extraordinary advice that, for while boldness and passion may fuel our actions, often we must temper our intensity with measured, disciplined, decorous speech if our inner vision is ever to be made real.

"Manly Deeds, Womanly Voices: Activism, Empowerment and Change in the Pre-Civil Rights Period, 1895-1963," a highly informative and touching exhibit just opened at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, does a masterful job of showing us that this duality of voices and deeds was an underlying theme of the African-American experience for much of our century.

For while courageous deeds raised fundamental issues of social change, black America sensed that carefully calibrated voices of dignified protest were the ones most likely to be heard. Indeed, in a troubled land all too ready to inflict unspeakable violence on its most principled sons and daughters, how could they have concluded otherwise?

This exhibit is a monument to those whose voices and deeds melded to serve as the vanguard for the civil rights movement.

I worked backward, beginning with the displays honoring Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, the leader of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose efforts led to the desegregation of Gwynn Oak Park in Woodlawn in Baltimore County.

In 1954, the 60-year-old park contained some 25 amusement rides, all of which were off-limits to black children. Civil rights protests began the following year.

On July 4, 1963, Jackson led some 500 activists in dignified protest of the park's discriminatory practices. Seven weeks later, on Aug. 28 (the same day as the legendary March on Washington), 11-year-old Sharon Langley became the first black child to ride the Gwynn Oak merry-go-round.

"Lots of people who've been through here remember Gwynn Oak very well," says Amelia Harris, Banneker-Douglass' exhibition specialist. "It still creates quite an emotional response."

Another local connection is established in documents relating to Martin Dyer, the Douglass High School graduate from Baltimore who, in 1948, became the first African-American to attend St. John's College.

"Manly Deeds" also provides its share of lighter moments. I was especially taken with photographs of Tom Thumb Weddings, mock nuptials with youngsters dressed to the nines comprising the full wedding party. Such occasions were held as fund-raisers for churches and charitable organizations and to familiarize children with proper etiquette.

Smiles fade quickly, though, as one passes the image of a PTC leering Jim Crow, a horrendous photograph showing two young men murdered by a Southern mob, and a monument to the 23 black Marylanders lynched between 1884 and 1933. The sadness never completely goes away.

Perhaps my favorite image of the entire exhibit is a wonderful 1896 photo of delegates to the National Association of Colored Women, the largely middle-class organization that worked mightily to advance the African-American agenda in education and community improvement.

"Lift as we climb" was their motto as articulated by the NACW's indefatigable leader, Ida Wells. The determination etched in those 19th-century faces summed up for me the entire spirit of this exehibit.

I commend this exhibit, which will remain at Banneker-Douglass through April 27 to one and all. In this season devoted to "Peace on earth, good will toward men," I felt honored to be in the #F presence of my American ancestors who did so much more than most to bring these lofty sentiments to life in both word and deed.

Pub Date: 12/10/98

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