Filling a gap in history of African-Americans

Museum: Black Marylanders' struggles and contributions will be recalled in a spacious $33 million exhibition hall by the harbor.

October 27, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

At Pratt and President streets is a vacant parking lot with faint traces of white and clumps of grass breaking through cracks in the blacktop. But to George L. Russell Jr., the land represents so much more.

It is there where children will understand that there need be no insurmountable obstacles to success. It is there they will learn of a Baltimore youth who became a millionaire, a child from Howard County who grew up to become the first African-American scientist, and a youngster from Detroit's ghettos who became a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

For nearly a decade, attorney Russell has dreamed of a museum where African-American history would be portrayed accurately, where people long forgotten would be remembered, where fallen heroes would be honored.

By year's end, construction is to begin on the museum that will be named after Reginald F. Lewis, the Baltimore native and philanthropist who went on to head a billion-dollar corporation, TLC Beatrice International Holdings, then the nation's largest black-owned business.

"It's a positive way to change the lives of these kids -- to change their hopes and dreams," said Russell, a trial attorney in Peter G. Angelos' law firm.

The absence of such a museum in Baltimore has long been a major omission, said David C. Driskell, a retired professor of African-American art history at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a consultant for the Baltimore project.

"There's a void," he said. "The state of Maryland is second to none in terms of the people of African-American descent who played significant roles in political, cultural, educational and economic areas."

Maryland is the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, who helped free more than 300 slaves; Frederick Douglass, the internationally known abolitionist, orator and writer; Benjamin Banneker, an early African-American scientist, and Thurgood Marshall, the great-grandson of a slave, a civil rights leader and the first black Supreme Court justice.

Groundbreaking Dec. 3

Although Russell won't be part of the exhibit, he could easily serve as a role model. He was appointed as the first African-American judge on the city Circuit Court in 1966, was the first black city solicitor, was inducted as a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and is chairman of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Baltimore branch.

Groundbreaking for the Reginald F. Lewis Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled for Dec. 3. The $33 million project will rise five stories and contain 82,000 square feet of space, second in size to only Detroit's monument to black history. It will have galleries for permanent and temporary exhibits, an interactive learning center, a 200-seat auditorium, oral history studio, classrooms, a gift shop, cafe and administrative offices.

"This is something that will document the accomplishments, struggles and victories of a large segment of our population," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "It will commemorate those contributions that African-Americans have made not only to Maryland but to the nation."

"Too many of them"

The museum is arriving as several tourist attractions near the Inner Harbor have struggled or failed. The City Life Museums struggled for years and ultimately closed, and the Hall of Exploration, was shuttered after seven months. Port Discovery, the city's highly promoted, Disney-designed children's museum, has failed to meet attendance and profit projections.

The new museum also will encounter competition. There are more than 200 African-American museums in the country -- some of them, including the largest, are foundering -- and 26 more are being built.

"Of course, we will have too many of them," said Randall M. Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Some museums have been victimized by insufficient financing, faulty business plans, lack of focus and a failure to win repeat visits.

"African-American museums have had financial woes across the years," said Rita Organ, director of exhibits at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. "Sustainability is a problem. Strong post-opening development plans sometimes are not well thought out."

In Detroit, which has the nation's largest African-American museum, officials have reduced hours, slashed budgets, laid off employees and spent up to $15 million to overhaul the main exhibit five years after opening.

In Chicago, the DuSable Museum has been able to maintain its seven-day-a-week operation, but it can afford only a small staff, said E. Selean Holmes, interim chief curator.

"We're stable, but we struggle," she said.

Miller said Baltimore's project should succeed.

"Especially if it comes up with one that has a purpose, not just a grab bag, Baltimore would have to succeed," he said. "The question would be if you don't succeed, how could you not."

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