Exhibit at Banneker-Douglass Museum chronicles African-American enclaves in North County

Parallel world revealed

November 29, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

It's as if old North County moved into the Banneker-Douglass Museum.

This week, people unpacked boxes of old books, furniture, glassware, steam irons and stevedore tools at the Annapolis museum in preparation for Saturday's opening of an exhibit that reveals the history of northern Anne Arundel's black enclaves.

Through the objects pulled from closets and attics, along with hundreds of photographs and 25 hand-stitched quilts, Train, Tracks, Tarmac illuminates what previously was passed down as oral history.

"The communities pooled their resources to show what I call the parallel universe," said Wendi Perry, the museum director. "There's no other way they could get it down."

Betty Ann Mack of Crownsville, the project spokeswoman, explained that extended family networks once characterized North County hamlets settled around the time of the Civil War, like Freetown, Pumphrey and Furnace Branch.

Many were swallowed up, she said, by the building of big roads such as Route 100 and the airport once known as Friendship, now Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Linthicum (hence the word "tarmac" in the title).

"Memories are alive in their own minds of these small towns with no post office boxes," Mack said. "This exhibit is to make yesterday and today connect, with stories that have never been told."

Among the experiences recovered from the mists are a signalman's recollections of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's train coming down the tracks from Washington. "It's not something you get a medal for, but it was important to him and the railroad," Mack said.

Over the course of the yearlong exhibit, special events will be held such as a quilting seminar, a town hall meeting, and a dialogue featuring black and white perspectives, organizers said. The Northern Arundel Cultural Preservation Society has just launched a $250,000 fundraising campaign to finance the programs.

The exhibit spans African-American social history and culture from 1850 to the present, with an emphasis on families, work, education, church and community.

Seldom in the history of the state museum, a repository of Maryland's African-American heritage, has a community organized a display commemorating its own culture. Artifacts of everyday life, such as a Victrola and a school bell, seem at home in the museum's new exhibit space, along with three vibrant wall quilts, saturated with symbols, codes and real-life portraits, hanging in the two-story atrium.

Buttons, pearls, angels, kitchen and garden motifs also adorn the three modern quilts, the recent work of Joan M.E. Gaither, a fiber artist who teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Gaither's documentary pieces, which form the show's historic and artistic core, are edged with railroad tracks to illustrate the importance of working on railroads, especially the Baltimore & Ohio, to African-American men in the area.

Many of the 22 community group quilts, lighted by the former church sanctuary's stained-glass windows, could pass for family albums.

An a-rab cart holding papier-mache fruit made by schoolchildren is prominent.

One of the earliest pieces is an 1854 manumission paper -- a flowing, handwritten document granting former slave Thomas Burley his freedom.

Visual repetition of tracks throughout also recalls the Underground Railroad, the route to freedom for escaping slaves. Segregation in the county schools is embedded in Gaither's "Wiley H. Bates High School" flourish, remembering the only place for blacks to get a high school education after traveling miles to Annapolis. The school was open from 1933 to 1966. A slate from an old Rosenwald School stands as a testament to the days when black children relied on out-of-state philanthropy for reading, math and spelling instruction.

Amelia Harris, the museum events specialist, directed six intent volunteers, mostly seniors, as they assembled the exhibit piece by piece earlier this week. Irene Butler Hebron, a retired schoolteacher, and other members of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Hanover led the way.

"My vision is to make the story flow, and they are very serious and motivated. They even brought me a sickle," Harris said in her office upstairs. "For me, it's a blessing to be like a maestro in an orchestra and hear beautiful music."

The museum and the preservation society are partners in the project, with community volun- teers doing a large part of the labor and research. They scoured their family households, discovering even a well-preserved elementary school certificate dating to the 1930s. For a museum whose staff has lately shrunk to three people, the community proposal made by skilled amateurs last year was a match, officials said.

Harris noted that her sense of community was enhanced by working with Hebron, Mack and other volunteers, as they sifted through humble items and heroic spirits.

"They're all connected or related somehow, laughing about good times at the ice cream parlor or church," she said. "It's a great feeling, listening to them."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

The Trails, Tracks Tarmac exhibit is free and open to the public starting at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Banneker-Douglass Museum is at 84 Franklin St. For more information, call 410-216-6180.

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