Past meets present

The Banneker-Douglass Museum links its new gallery space to an old church.

September 11, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis is now closer to Church Circle, with its front door moved 10 paces to the left - bringing a visitor into a stark space where the old and new architecture of the museum meet.

Inside the Franklin Street entrance, gleaming black floor tiles and a modern light oak staircase make a seamless match with the tall right wall from the exterior of the 1890s brick building. All this sets the stage for a maritime mural of the City Dock circa 1870, the post-emancipation period, right in the middle of the story the museum is there to tell.

"You see the old [church] facade and at the same time view the new gallery space, showing you where we were and where we are now," said Jeffrey H. Greene, the facilities manager overseeing the project for the state.

With the mission of illuminating African-American history and culture in Maryland, the state's official repository of related archival material is in the final stages of a $5.5 million expansion that will double its size to 11,000 square feet, state officials said.

Now in the last phase of designing exhibits, the museum named for astronomer Benjamin Banneker and abolitionist Frederick Douglass - both Maryland natives - is due to reopen by the end of the year. It has been closed since May.

"This [project] has been a long time coming, five or six years," museum director Wendi Perry said. "But we held the integrity of this [church] building. ... It takes a lot to get it right."

As she spoke, Perry pointed to the polished stained-glass windows and brick hull of the historic Mount Moriah AME Church, which previously housed the 21-year-old museum. Burnishing the beauty of the 1894 church, once the cherished center of a bustling black community, was paramount to the museum's expansion onto what used to be an empty lot.

"The church is an artifact, too," Perry said. "It's our biggest artifact."

Said Stephen T. Hill, an architect working on the museum's interior: "Now we have to go from bricks and mortar to images and context."

The former church building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the last standing fragments of black community culture in a city block now largely taken up by the Anne Arundel County Courthouse. The shuttered church was saved from demolition a few decades ago, Perry said, "by people literally laying in front of bulldozers."

The sanctuary will be available for large gatherings and events, she said.

An exhibit, Annapolis Underground, will give visitors a sense of what was below the surface of the courthouse block - pieces from everyday life such as combs, buttons, harmonica parts, knick-knacks and porcelain. They were excavated by teams directed by University of Maryland professor Mark P. Leone in the 1990s.

Leone said the exhibit will reflect 150 years of changing black community life in the state capital. The clues recovered from the ground seem to indicate that a free black community was established on the block as early as the 1830s.

The team's findings dating from later years show "the Victorian face of success and artifacts of being middle-class," the archaeologist said. "Taken together, they show striving to enter the middle class."

A doctor, lawyer and a grocer named Wiley Bates, who eventually wrote an autobiography, resided in the tight-knit community, helping complete its core identity separate from the outside white world.

Leone said the artifacts also show that two distinct economic classes resided on the same block, with residents of lower-rent alley dwellings sheltered and "protected" by blacks who were better off.

A unique aspect of Maryland's African-American history is its unusually high number of free blacks in the pre-Civil War population compared with other slaveholding states, said Elizabeth Stewart, the museum's research historian. The museum's charting of struggles and progress starts in the 1630s with the arrival of the first slave ship in Maryland, Stewart said, and goes until 1968, the apex of the civil rights movement and the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died.

Since June, when the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture opened with great fanfare in Baltimore, directors of the Banneker museum have had to clarify their mission.

"The Lewis museum is big picture, with a focus on national stories and the city of Baltimore," Perry said. "We are more regional, with smaller stories that are more intimate as far as region and the African-American experience in Maryland."

She talked about one-room schoolhouses, African-American women quilters, the blacksmith trade and the Sparrows Beach resort - where blacks flocked in the years of segregation for recreation and jazz and blues music - as subjects for exploration.

Said Stewart: "I think we'll be complementary with the Lewis Museum, with more of a Chesapeake flavor."

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