Agency, schools unite to push black history

Museum: A budding partnership aims to give pupils dynamic and comprehensive lessons on the African-American experience in Maryland.

April 13, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Forget about the get-in-and-get-out field trips, or the brief burst of learning every February during Black History Month.

The soon-to-rise Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture is working with the State Department of Education to transform how Maryland's 850,000 public school students learn about the black experience here.

Pupils from Cambridge to Cumberland will not only visit the five-story black-granite museum that is scheduled to open near Baltimore's Inner Harbor in 2004, but they will also prepare in depth for the trip and then spend time reflecting on it for a more enduring encounter, educators say.

Also, related lesson plans and activities will be added to the curriculum throughout the year.

The goal is for students to fully explore the contributions of black Marylanders, both unknown and famous, and to better appreciate nearly four centuries of tragedy and triumph.

"It's very unique," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who is personally overseeing a partnership that she says is unlike any other in the country.

Although organizers say the $33 million, mostly state-funded museum will be the second-largest of its kind (after one in Detroit), they hope the connection to the schools will broaden its impact.

"The benefits that will flow from this are just indeterminable," said George L. Russell Jr., a prominent lawyer and former judge who has led the museum effort for nine years. "It's as far as the imagination can reach."

Exactly what form all of this will take is unclear. Officials at the Maryland African American Museum Corp., a state agency of which Russell is chairman, are busy devising exhibits and searching for objects and images. At first, most will be borrowed from entities such as the Maryland Historical Society.

Once those are set, educators will adapt them for classroom use with help from curriculum writers. Grasmick said that work will be done by the start of the 2004-2005 school year, when the museum is expected to open at Pratt and President streets. The focus initially will be on grades four through eight, before expanding to high schools.

Educators with experience in the classroom say the overhaul is overdue. Clementine Carr, who taught social studies at City College until 1997, said there is room for improvement.

"Our students know Jackie Robinson was the first African-American player in the major leagues; they know about Martin Luther King," said Carr, interim director of social studies for Baltimore schools and co-chairwoman of a museum-education task force appointed by Grasmick.

But "there is so much more about the African-American experience than that," Carr said. "There is a paucity of knowledge."

Jacqueline F. Brown, director of academic support for Howard County schools, said: "We have students who graduate and sometimes they never even get to that segment of the curriculum that has to do with African-American history and culture." Brown is on the museum's board and is its liaison to Carr's task force.

The lack of understanding exists not only among students, they said, but also among teachers. "Many don't know because it was never taught to us," Carr said.

Grasmick said training the state's 50,000 public school teachers will be key. Like the National Aquarium and Maryland Science Center, the museum will offer lectures and tours to help prepare teachers.

In Russell's view, exposure at the museum and in the classroom will leave a lasting impression. Black children will find a source of "inspiration and aspiration," he predicted, while others will "get a different perspective" on how it was - and is - to be African-American in Maryland.

When ground is broken in August or September, it will end a nearly decade-long effort to get a shovel in the ground. Russell, a former circuit judge and city solicitor who is a trailblazer in his own right, has worked hard, tapping his connections.

When legislators told him to find $1.5 million in private money before the state would spend any money, he turned to an old friend, lawyer Peter G. Angelos. "In four minutes, Peter Angelos gave me $1.5 million," said Russell, who today works at the Angelos firm. "He invested in a dream."

Of the $3 million total that must be raised privately, $2.6 million has been committed or paid, he said. Grasmick's husband, businessman Lou Grasmick, has been helping to raise money.

For the first two years, the state will cover three-quarters of operating costs and 50 percent after that. Operating costs are estimated at $2.5 million a year. Ticket prices are expected to be less than $10 for adults and lower still for children and senior citizens.

Museum officials project 300,000 visitors its first year, then about 150,000 annually. By comparison the National Aquarium has drawn between 1.2 million and 1.7 million visitors a year.

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