Downstairs in the new space at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, Janice Hayes Williams, a 48-year-old local historian, said an exhibit on cultural artifacts made her feel oddly at home.
"William Henry Hebron, that's my great-grandfather," Williams said, pointing to a name listed in the Annapolis Underground exhibit, which features artifacts of African-American family life dug up from the very block where the museum stands at 84 Franklin St. "He was a fish merchant, half-black and half-Jewish."
Tomorrow at noon, in a ribbon-cutting ceremony that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expected to attend, Wendi Perry, the museum director, and other officials of the state-funded institution will formally mark the end of a two-year, $5.5 million expansion and renovation.
Now, they say, they can do their job of engaging the public with stories, not just facts, of the black experience in the region: concentrating on Annapolis, the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay.
"There was a strong black middle class being developed in this area who strived for education and jobs without protests," Perry said. "There are a lot of little stories that will fall through the cracks if we don't tell them here."
Perry oversaw the expansion goals, one by one: doubling the exhibition space; building an adjacent four-story brick building; and burnishing the sanctuary of the former Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church, the historic structure that housed the museum when it opened in 1984. The museum is the state repository of African-American material culture, museum officials said.
The goals have been accomplished, and the old church interior -- said to have the best acoustics in town -- is now ready for special occasions, performances and gatherings.
The long closure did not come without troubles. While the Annapolis project endured delays for months, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture opened in Baltimore last year, overshadowing the more modest museum in the state capital. The Lewis museum exhibits, which don't flinch from the ugliness of lynchings or slave shackles, are more comprehensive and national in scope.
Because Maryland was a slaveholding state that also had one of the largest populations of free blacks in the pre-Civil War era, it occupies a paradoxical place in African-American history. In addition to surveyor and astronomer Benjamin Banneker and abolitionist orator and author Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman -- known as "Moses" for leading other runaway slaves to freedom -- was also a Marylander, giving the state the distinction of producing several historic figures in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The new permanent exhibit, on the second floor, is titled Deep Roots, Rising Waters: A History of African Americans in Maryland. Through illustrations, explanatory signs, photographs and short films, it begins with the arrival of Middle Passage ships on Maryland's shores in the mid-17th century and goes up to the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. The three centuries charted in the exhibit include the tale of Kunta Kinte, the Gambian youth who arrived in chains on a slave ship in Annapolis in 1767 -- immortalized by a descendant, author Alex Haley, in the international best-seller Roots.
But Lamar T. Wilson, who coordinates programs and exhibits, said the intent was to give museum visitors a fuller look at the African diaspora period, which included seizing captives from Senegal, who had valuable skills that translated well to the Chesapeake Bay. Fertility shells and decorative beads, which had spiritual significance and were about the only things captured slaves could carry as mementos of their land, are displayed to show strategies for survival.
Those who crabbed and oystered on the water were far better off than those slaves who were driven to work on tobacco and cotton fields under the eye and lash of a master or overseer, Wilson said. Compared to that harsh existence, a somewhat solitary life on a small boat was a blessing of independence, he said: "On the water, all men were free."
But on the beach or on the water during the Jim Crow era, not all were treated equally. The exhibit gives glimpses of a day trip to an all-black resort near Annapolis, Carr's Beach -- also a destination for black Baltimoreans when summer recreation facilities were segregated.
Downstairs at the archaeology exhibit, a temporary display of everyday objects such as glasses, pitchers, silverware and buttons, Williams perked up when she saw the name of another relative, George Phelps Jr. Williams, who grew up living with her grandparents on nearby South Street, echoed Phelps' statement, written on the wall, that everyone in his household had to play and practice an instrument. "That was true, even for me," she said. "I played the piano."
Known informally as the courthouse block project, the artifacts displayed were found in the ground when a formerly thriving African-American neighborhood was cleared for the expansion of the Anne Arundel County Courthouse on Church Circle.
The museum is meant to make the community feel at home. Annapolis has had a significant black presence since it was a Colonial seaport, and African-Americans now make up about one-third of its population. Both the extraordinary and the quotidian are examined afresh under the new roof.
The first-floor exhibit room is the heart and center of capturing 20th-century life in the United States. Mark P. Leone, a University of Maryland professor who directed the project excavating fragments of private home life, said, "Some said, `We are tired of hearing about slavery. We want to hear about freedom.' The answer is there in the small things."
"It's the only place in the city where you can learn about African-American history," he said.