Museum of black history gets boost

Glendening adds $15.4 million to project near Inner Harbor

January 31, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

After nearly a decade of planning, supporters of a $24 million museum devoted to Maryland's black history proposed for a prime spot near Baltimore's Inner Harbor say the project is poised to receive crucial state funding.

The 72,000-square-foot museum would help tell the stories of such important Maryland blacks as Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman, 18th-century scientist Benjamin Banneker and jazz great Eubie Blake.

The state has spent $2.8 million on the museum design, and the city donated land for the project. Last week, Gov. Parris N. Glendening added $15.4 million, the bulk of the money needed to build the museum and open it in the spring of 2001.

Legislators from both houses said they are confident that the funding, which was included in the fiscal 2000 capital budget released by the governor last week, will win approval.

"It's been a long time coming," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat. "Young people in particular need to know about people like Thurgood Marshall and Frederick Douglass and their achievements. Young people today hear these names and they look at me like I was crazy."

Beyond touting its cultural and educational benefits, backers of the museum see it as an economic engine -- a driving force in transforming Baltimore into a convention hub for predominantly black groups and establishing Maryland as a destination for lucrative black heritage tours.

Such tours could help the region tap into the $30 billion that blacks across the nation spend each year combining travel and an exploration of history. The swelling industry has boosted the economies of cities with large black populations, including Atlanta and New Orleans.

Annapolis has the Banneker-Douglass Museum, and Baltimore has such attractions as the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, but organizers of the new museum say the state lacks an anchoring site for black tourism.

"It's just what's needed to complete this dream that I have to make all of the museum stops on a tour around the state," said Carroll Hynson Jr., chairman of the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture, which was formed to raise money for the project. "We could have a map one day that says these are spots throughout Maryland that tout our culture. It's almost like our own Underground Railroad."

The museum proposal comes at a time of uncertainty for some Baltimore tourist attractions. The Baltimore City Life Museums closed in 1997 because of a lack of visitors, as did the Hall of Exploration at the Columbus Center last year. Both were steps from the proposed African-American Museum site at Pratt and President streets.

"The problems with City Life and the Columbus Center revolved around wildly optimistic projections for visitorship," said Rodney Little, head of the state's Division of Historical and Cultural Programs.

"This museum is planned on far more conservative estimates of revenue," Little said. "About half as much as those others."

Little said the Columbus Center had projected that about 50 percent of operating costs would be generated by gate receipts, along with gift shop and restaurant sales. The African-American Museum is counting on 21 percent of its operating funds to come directly from visitors. The remainder, Little said, would come from state appropriations and private fund raising.

One cost-cutting proposal that arose briefly two years ago was to locate the museum inside the City Life site. George Russell Jr., one of the new project's chief planners, declined to discuss that idea Friday.

State officials have focused on the vacant lot at President and Pratt streets.

Backers of the project said they are undeterred by the recent record of museum failures. Wayne Clark, director of the Maryland Office of Museum Services, pointed to the opening last month of Port Discovery, a museum on nearby Market Place that is aimed at children.

"It's synergy," Clark said. "The two will draw from each other, and both will feed off the success of the Inner Harbor."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and longtime museum backer, said other facilities that focus on African-American heritage have thrived.

"I don't think we'll have trouble with a unique museum that highlights the extraordinary achievements of African-Americans from Maryland," said Rawlings, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. "It's is the right time for a project like this."

Given the time and energy spent developing the project, including raising $1.5 million of the $3 million in private money that will help fund the museum, supporters say construction is overdue. Several said success in persuading the governor to fund the project probably stems from the strong support Glendening received from Baltimore's black voters during last year's election.

"There's no doubt this is some of the political gravy," said Dr. Norman A. Handy Sr., a Baltimore city councilman.

"But this is no different than it has been for every other ethnic community, whenever they have come together as a bloc and leveraged their political force," Handy said. "It has been beneficial."

The teachers who brought 83 sixth-graders to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum at 1601 E. North Ave. on Thursday said they would welcome additional offerings.

"The kids see the slave ships here, and they learn a lot about what their ancestors went through," said Sherrita McKenzie, who escorted the group from Templeton Elementary School in Riverdale. "But it would be nice to have more places that recognize the accomplishments of African-Americans once they arrived."

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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