Stepping Up

Historian exhibits leadership and is named new director of the Lewis Museum


In the painting, a young African-American boy, dressed in blue jeans and bright red cap, gazes out thoughtfully at the viewer. Look closely, and his eyes seem to gleam with intelligence and determination.

"It's like flipping the pages of a family album," says historian David Terry.

The artwork, created by Maryland artist Joseph Holston, is on display at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in a section of the permanent exhibition devoted to black achievement in the arts.

"Not to say that [Holston's] people look like your folks or mine," Terry adds. "But then again they do, because the experiences described are so similar. He speaks to me personally, but also to a common inheritance of what has been important to us as a people."

Preserving a legacy that is at once personal and shared by millions of Americans is important to Terry, who last week was named the Lewis Museum's new executive director. (He replaced Sandy Bellamy, who resigned last month to pursue a business venture in the Washington area.) A specialist in African-American history who holds a doctorate from Howard University, Terry is particularly drawn to the contributions of ordinary people who helped shape history simply by doing what they felt they had to do.

"My approach is democratic," Terry says. "As a historian, I'm interested not just in what the leaders did but also what their followers accomplished, who may not have been well-educated, who may not have been able to read, but whose actions had an impact. I want this museum to show that we all had an important role to play in changing America, and that wherever we've gotten, we've gotten here together."

Terry's interest in the impact of ordinary people on history is reflected throughout the museum in the exhibits he organized as chief curator, a post he held from 2004 until last month, when he became interim director after Bellamy left. Terry is particularly proud of the museum's third-floor exhibit on slavery and the Underground Railroad, one of his fields of expertise.

The exhibit, Things Hold, Lines Connect, presents the historical events in terms of people who participated in them. One section, for example, recounts a young girl's escape from slavery through old photographs, text panels and an interactive installation that re-creates each phase of her escape, from making the decision to run away to her owners' response to her flight.

"This is where you see my fingerprint most," Terry says of this exhibit. "My basic approach is to try to understand what ordinary people did that fundamentally impacted history. For example, we think of Harriet Tubman as this person who made dozens of trips conducting slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. But in fact, Tubman never came back except to rescue a family member. That doesn't diminish what she did, but knowing it puts a more human face on her acts; she wasn't just motivated by abolitionist fervor, she had very personal reasons for what she did."

Terry is passionate about making Americans more aware of African-Americans' contributions to the development of this country. You can hear it in his voice when he talks about the museum's work, be it an exhibit on slavery or a painting like Holston's image of the boy in the red cap, in whose eager face he may see something of himself.

The 36-year-old Bowie resident grew up in the working-class suburbs of Prince George's County and the boy in the painting could easily have been one of his classmates at St. Benedict the Moor, a Catholic school in Washington run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence order. He says they taught him there was nothing he couldn't accomplish if he put his mind to it.

Now Terry will be overseeing a $34 million museum that's already had two previous directors, staff turnover, disputes on the board and other problems. The museum, for example, originally hoped to attract 300,000 visitors its first year, but recently scaled back that projection. And, last week, museum board Chairman George Russell charged that the fourth-grade African-American history curriculum the museum has developed at a cost of some $500,000 was not being implemented in the Baltimore City school system, which has one of the largest proportions of African-American students in the state.

Dealing with all of these issues will be a tall order for a former university professor and Maryland State Archives researcher who had little professional museum experience before being hired at the Lewis Museum two years ago. But Terry, who exudes quiet confidence, says he welcomes the challenges, which he insists are normal for any large institution starting out.

"I think we have a wonderful opportunity to continue what has been a remarkable year," he says. "And we've had a very positive response from the public, who love what we have to offer."

Walk through the museum's galleries, Terry says, and you'll see a whole history of people who faced difficult situations - and overcame them.

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