Bridges to the Past

The very personal stories behind the items on display at the Reginal F. Lewis Museum.

June 22, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Day by day, county by county and door by door, Kathryn Coney and her colleagues have gradually accumulated a treasure trove.

Some of the objects they collected have historic significance, while others are intimate and everyday. Some belonged to famous people while others were owned by miners and fishermen.

But all were owned by black people living in the Free State. Taken as a whole, the cache - which forms the permanent collection of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture - reveals this community's rich and layered history.

The $33 million, 82,000-square-foot museum at 830 E. Pratt St. opens to the public Saturday. Most museums are built to house existing collections, but plans were made to build the Lewis Museum before a single object had been acquired to place inside it. Gathering those objects - and their histories - has been Coney's job for the past 21 months.

Coney, who manages the museum's collections, scoured catalogs and architectural magazines. While tracking down leads, she picked kale with a farm family, staged a weekend retreat for black leaders and visited contacts in their homes.

"We never asked for anything," she says. "Instead, we would admire an object and talk about how to preserve it. And we collected oral histories."

More often than not, they left with an heirloom as well as a great story.

In the end, 500 objects had been obtained for the permanent collection. While many have been authenticated by research, others are documented through family stories passed down through the generations.

"An object is just an artifact unless it has a story behind it," Coney says. "The story builds a bridge to the past."

Here are some seemingly ordinary objects and the three extraordinary tales behind them.

McCREADY FOUGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO BE TRAINED AS A NURSE

In 1949, almost on a whim, Esther McCready requested an application from an all-white nursing school. That began a court battle that lasted more than a year, enlisted the talents of a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall, and integrated the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore.

The hard-won letter that McCready received admitting her to the class of 1953 and the Florence Nightingale cap -- or "Flossie" -- that she later earned are on display at the Lewis Museum.

At the time, Provident Hospital in Baltimore had a nursing program that accepted black students. In addition, the University of Maryland, desperate to maintain its whites-only status, paid tuition for some black nursing students from Maryland who agreed to study out of state.

But McCready didn't want to go to Provident, and she also didn't want to attend nursing school in Tennessee. She wanted to study at the nursing school that she had been walking past for the past 17 years on her way to medical check-ups at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

On her application, McCready clearly stated that she had graduated from a black high school.

"I thought it was a shame that because of my race, there was only one school in Baltimore that I could attend," says McCready, now 74 and a New York resident. "But I wasn't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. I knew what they were going to say, but I wanted to make them say it."

Months went by. After repeated inquiries, McCready was told that her credentials were being reviewed. When she called again a few months later, she received the same reply. She went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The organization filed suit on McCready's behalf. Initially, the district court ruled against her, but the NAACP appealed. The appeal was argued by Marshall, an attorney and the grandson of a slave, who, in 1967, would become the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice.

Decades later, McCready remembers details of Marshall's summation, and smiles. "He was brilliant," she says. "He argued that the University of Maryland was a state school supported by taxes, and that Negro people pay taxes, too."

The Maryland Court of Appeals' decision was handed down in April 1950. McCready had won.

A LOVE STORY CARVED IN CALLUM'S FAMILY TREE

The teenage girl known as Irish Nell was so much in love with a slave on the adjoining plantation that she would give up anything to marry her true love. Even her freedom.

Even their future children's freedom.

In 1681, Nell -- she was born Eleanor Butler -- was a 16-year- old indentured servant, a white woman working as a laundress in Maryland for the third Lord Baltimore. One day, she told her employer that she planned to wed the man identified in court records as "Negro Charles."

"Lord Baltimore told her what would happen and warned her not to do it," says Agnes Kane Callum, a direct descendant of the couple. "She didn't listen. They were married by a Catholic priest. They had seven or eight children. The whole family was the property of Charles' master."

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