Telling History

Mining oral traditions to fill Baltimore's new African-American history museum.

Saving History

The staff of Baltimore's not-yet-opened museum is piecing together the story of African-American Marylanders.

Cover Story

April 04, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,Sun Staff

CUMBERLAND -- When the women from the Baltimore museum arrive, Miss Romaine Denson Franklin smells like a flower and looks as pretty as a porcelain doll. She's even more promising in person than any artifacts or antiques yet assembled for the new African-American collection.

The museum's registrar and exhibits manager help her into the car and drive her to dinner at the Rocky Gap Lodge. The next morning, they will pick her up for church. It's hugs every time they meet, kisses every time they say good-bye.

Miss Romaine, at 87, laughs like a schoolgirl. The museum women beam admiringly.

Over months, they have pursued her family's startling tale, hoping to document it before the teller passes, anxious to preserve memories before time and inattention leave them for history's dustbin.

Kathryn Coney and Margaret Hutto, registrar and exhibits manager, are on a mission for Baltimore's new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, scheduled to open late in the fall. No other institution in the country has such a charge. Since July they have toured the state gathering personal recollections and searching for stories and historic objects to shape a more complete narrative of black life. They hope to give voice to ordinary African-Americans whose personal heritage has long been submerged, to unearth suppressed tales and document stories that could be easily ignored because of the complications and challenges they present to traditional understandings of American history. The results are sometimes painful, but also often eventful and inspiring.

In the case of Miss Romaine, the potential significance of the story is quickly propelling the women into a world of speculative history, an ambiguous mixture of folktale and fact that they are unafraid to face, seeking answers to questions that the museum will be eager to tackle.

As the women comb the state, a government task force is also designing a new curriculum to bring the stories to children in the public schools. Some day, if Coney and Hutto succeed, Miss Romaine's family story might become a lesson taught in Maryland schools, from the Alleghenies to the ocean.

At dinner, however, Miss Romaine hesitates. She is, it seems, shy and unassuming, too modest to puff her family's legacy.

"Can you tell us about how you organized workers in the union at Rosenthal Department Store?" Coney asks when beverages arrive.

"Oh, let's don't get into that," Miss Romaine says.

When salads come, Coney tries again: "Could you talk about your Girl Scout troop that integrated the movie theaters here?"

"Yes, well, I guess that was my idea," Miss Romaine acknowledges demurely, then stops them with a deafening pause.

Later, after lobster bisque and coffee, Miss Romaine grows more comfortable. When they take her home, she starts talking. About her neighbors, her church. About family. Eventually, she pulls out the old photographs of Samuel Denson, her grandfather, and of herself as a young woman with the Girl Scout troop that desegregated the town's movie theaters.

Coney and Hutto stay until after midnight.

"A pleasure," Coney says, afterward.

"An honor," Hutto agrees.

The next morning, Miss Romaine stands with them at the old Emmanuel Church and sings, As With Gladness, Men of Old / Did the Guiding Star Behold. They share communion and after the service, she leads them on a tour.

Her grandfather, Samuel Denson, had spent his days as gatekeeper to a secret mission here, she says. It was dangerous and momentous. After more than 150 years, the story is just coming to light, and Miss Romaine may finally be able to claim her remarkable heritage.

When Coney, 32, and Hutto, 38, joined the history museum last summer, Coney reviewed plans for the exhibits and decided they should expand the scope way beyond Baltimore. "We are a state museum," she had said. "We need to build bridges in every county in the state."

Plans for the museum already included the grand figures of Maryland's past: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Billie Holiday and Benjamin Banneker. But beyond the eminent few, the museum was also expected to celebrate everyday heroes and heroines -- black watermen and coal miners, tobacco farmers and iron workers. Coney looked at a map. She counted 23 counties in Maryland. Every one, she decided, deserved a visit.

The two women understood the importance of provincial life. Coney grew up in rural Prince George's County; Hutto had spent the summers of her childhood in a small Texas town.

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