Respecting the past with eyes on future

July 03, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

IMAGE, THEY SAY, is everything. They are wrong.

Imagination is more powerful. It's important to see people succeeding, but it's transforming to imagine yourself in the picture.

A sense of possibility is the offspring of experience - of seeing others do well, of hearing how they did what they did, of seeing beyond barriers. Founders of the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture want to promote that kind of imagining.

Directors of the new building on Pratt Street present the artifacts and mementos of black community life in Maryland. They are establishing the record of a people who helped to build the nation even as they prevailed over the nation's injustice.

But their objective goes beyond that.

When it officially opened last weekend, several of the presiding dignitaries referred to the museum's overarching goals of uplift and understanding.

"This is a joyful day," proclaimed the Rev. Harold Carter, pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church. "This is a holy day. This is a triumphant day. ... Our future will be brighter and the seeds of understanding and the building of a redeeming community will grow in the light of our saving knowledge."

But how precisely will the new day dawn? After the confetti had settled, after the grand building had opened and visitors had been truly awed, how would the specific goal of empowering young people be met?

There is urgency in the question. At the same time, there is the museum's lesson of deferred gratification. In light of the black community's history, it was a short, 11-year sprint from the germ of an idea to an actual building.

During that entire time, the museum's midwife, George L. Russell Jr., spoke passionately about poor black kids who need proof that success is possible.

He and others took care to remember during the opening ceremonies a successful black man whose imagination and stature gave the museum backing from the state of Maryland. The late Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore legislator, convinced Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the General Assembly that a museum was needed.

Former Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who is now running for the U.S. Senate, had Mr. Rawlings in mind throughout the opening day. "I got a little emotional because it was important for me to hear Pete's name lifted in all of this," he said.

Nor was Mr. Rawlings the only one who did not live to see the new building. The man for whom it is named, Reginald F. Lewis, was not there, either. His widow, Loida, remembered the ferocious determination of her husband to succeed in business. He became chief executive officer of TLC Beatrice International, and he left $5 million for an African-American museum to be built somewhere in the nation. It turned out to be in his hometown.

The linkages between past and present in Baltimore were dramatic. Mr. Lewis had grown up on the streets of East Baltimore mere blocks from the museum. One of his friends in those days was Robert Mack Bell, now chief judge of the Maryland State Court of Appeals. Maryland's Frederick Douglass, the great writer and abolitionist orator, grew up on these streets, too.

So, a youngster open to inspiration can get it from the stories of Mr. Rawlings, Mr. Russell, Mr. Lewis, Mr. Douglass and many others they will learn about in this building. Retired Morgan State University professor Richard I. McKinney says they may have "transforming experiences."

They will see manumission papers and a metal tube fashioned to safeguard them. They must try to imagine, Mr. McKinney says, "what went through a former slave's mind, how proud he was to be free." In such moments of recognition, the visitor may imagine freedom from the bonds of despair and misunderstanding.

"You never know how far the message will go," says Mr. Mfume, "until someone stands up and says, `I was on my way to hell until one day I went into this museum in Baltimore. ... That gave me determination to make my life different.'"

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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