Preserving A Legacy

Our View: A Small Black History Museum Could Benefit From Working With Others

August 17, 2009

Maryland, birthplace of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall, is endowed with one of the richest legacies of African-American history of any state in the union. Before the Civil War, the state was home to the largest population of free blacks in the country, and it also sat squarely athwart a major route of the Underground Railroad through which thousands of slaves escaped to freedom in the North. After the war, new African-American communities sprang up across the state, centered around hundreds of small, fiercely independent churches that provided their congregants with a sense of belonging and a spiritual and physical refuge in an often hostile world.

Such was mission of the Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church, a little building with a big name that reflected the fervent hopes of its founders for a better life in this world and salvation in the next. Established in 1887 in Granite, Md., in southwestern Baltimore County, the tiny, 650-square-foot structure erected on a stone foundation had a peaked roof, three rows of pews, a pulpit and a piano to accompany its chorister's lilting hymns.

But the community that sustained the church for so long dispersed decades ago, and the building fell into neglect. Now a preservationist group wants to restore the old structure and convert it into a museum commemorating the role it played in the lives of generations of black Marylanders. That's a laudable goal, but it won't be easy: Across the country, museums large and small have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Raising funds for construction and operating costs has been a struggle because private donors are tapped out and government has cut back support for the arts and culture. For a new institution just trying to get off the ground, it's likely to be an uphill climb.

The Friends of Cherry Hill Church can take heart, however, from the fact that there are a wide range of resources they can draw on to realize their goal. The Kennedy Center in Washington, for example, offers workshops that instruct fledgling institutions in the skills and tools needed to operate effectively. And there are any number of smaller institutions, such as the Banneker-Douglas Museum in Annapolis, that can serve as models of how to develop exhibition programs and sustainable funding plans. The Cherry Hill group may decide it can benefit from partnering directly or indirectly with one of these, or with a larger institution such as the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture in Baltimore.

There's growing interest in African-American history and tourism, and Maryland is uniquely situated to take advantage of both. If the proposed museum's backers can get enough people engaged, they can succeed even in these tough times, so long as they keep in mind that partnering with others probably will get them a lot further than trying to go it alone.

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