Museum sorely needs sign of state commitment


May 30, 1999|By Norris West

WHEN YOU VISIT the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, prepare to be underwhelmed.

Most of the items probably can be found in public libraries or viewed on the Internet. Although some photographs and exhibits on African-American history will touch the heart and recall a proud, if strife-ridden past, visitors likely will not leave with the feeling of having seen something unique.

The sad condition of the museum does not fulfill the vision of the late Benjamin Quarles. The renowned historian was the first chairman of the commission that created and continues to supervise the museum.

The efforts of Quarles and others, including U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, led to the birth of Banneker-Douglass 15 years ago.

The founders wanted to build an institution to preserve African-American history. They could not have envisioned so much infighting. The museum does not rank even among the Baltimore region's top 25 visited attractions, according to one survey.

Few visitors

A visitors' sign-in sheet in the lobby indicates that few people pass through the doors, even though admission is free and the museum is in the historic former Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church in the heart of Annapolis.

Those who should be on a mission to strengthen the attraction have wasted energy in a power struggle. The main players are:

The Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, headed by former Maryland Lottery deputy Carroll H. Hynson Jr. It is empowered by law to preserve African-American history and culture. The governor appoints commissioners, who have authority to hire -- and fire -- museum directors.

The Maryland Department of Housing's Division of Historic and Cultural Programs is the administrative agency that oversees the commission. Its administrator is Rodney Little.

The Banneker-Douglass Foundation is a nonprofit fund-raising organization led by Erroll E. Brown Sr. Foundation members are volunteers who have a deep interest in the museum.

In addition, two museum directors fired during the past two years have been in the middle of the controversy.

The first, Ronald L. Sharps, told Sun reporter Jackie Powder that he lost his job because he failed to carryout a suggestion by Mr. Little to close the museum.

Ordered to close?

"He didn't direct me to do it, but he suggested it would be in my best interest to close down the museum on some pretext and that he would leave that to me as to what it would be," said Mr. Sharps, now assistant dean of the school of the arts at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Mr. Little has denied this serious allegation. It seems unlikely that Mr. Sharps can prove it. But the accusation feeds speculation about the state's commitment -- or lack thereof -- to the museum.

Mr. Brown of the Banneker-Douglass Foundation charges that the housing department and commission have lost interest in the venue as they plan a larger, $19 million African-American museum proposed in Baltimore.

Mr. Brown and others who have raised money for the Annapolis museum insist that its sad state is intentional and that Maryland officials and the commission have purposely robbed it of exhibits and prestige.

Not much to see

As it stands, the museum hardly fits the bill as the state's official repository for African-American culture.

It doesn't take long to view the collection: a partial list of Maryland lynchings from 1884 to 1933, a Victrola, a plaque containing the names of African-Americans who have served in the Annapolis Police Department, a display dedicated to Lillie M. Jackson that sorely lacks artifacts, a copy of a letter of acceptance for St. John's College's first black student, photographs of the 1963 March on Washington and a ledge at the George Ellicott & Co. store where Benjamin Banneker spent plenty of time and portraits of historical figures.

Some of the collections listed in the museum's brochures are not on display. Some important pieces have been damaged in storage.

The Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore and the African American Cultural Center in Howard County's Columbia are much more impressive by comparison.

Mr. Hynson argues that the commission and state are committed to improving Banneker-Douglass. Gov. Parris N. Glendening, he points out, budgeted $3.5 million to expand the museum. It is difficult to understand why the museum continues to languish.

A sign is needed -- more and better exhibits would be a good start -- to show that the state is serious about elevating the presence of African-American history and culture in Maryland's capital.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached by e-mail at

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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