`Great Blacks in Wax' museum aims to institutionalize black history

A little boy stands and looks up at the tall, dark figure, his face registering a mixture of wonder and recognition. The boy is a grammar school pupil, the figure is Granville T. Wood, known as the ``black Edison'' because of his electrical inventions, and the setting is Great Blacks in Wax, Baltimore's (and likely the world's) first black wax museum. Lifelike figures are carefully arranged in appropriate settings, with placards describing their various achievements. The most popular item is the ``invention case,'' a glass-enclosed display of items in miniature that were either invented by or improved upon by blacks. Children love to crowd around the case and gaze at the tiny models of everything from blimps and ice-cream scoops to typewriters and shoehorns.

The figures embody more black history than most Americans -- black or white -- encounter in a lifetime of schooling. They include: the slave Josiah Henson, whose life was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's ``Uncle Tom's Cabin''; Henry ``Box'' Brown, a startling figure, sitting inside the wooden box that carried him to his freedom in 1849 (he wanted his freedom so badly that he had himself shipped from Richmond, Va. to Philadelphia -- a 27-hour trip -- in a box 3 feet long and 21/2 feet wide and deep); Harriet Tubman, known as ``the black Moses,'' leader of the underground railroad movement; and Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Why an educational venture, instead of just a mildly scary entertainment, as are many wax museums?

Dr. Elmer Martin, a teacher of social work at Morgan State University, and founder of Great Blacks in Wax, told the Monitor: ``My wife, Joanne, and I are both educators and children of the '60s. During the '60s, as you know, there was a great deal of emphasis placed upon black history, not just so that blacks would understand where we've come from, but as an antidote to certain kinds of social problems in the black community -- particularly feelings of inferiority, and evidences of self-hatred.''

Dr. Martin pointed out that the activism of the '60s seemed to have lost a lot of steam by the '80s. ``It seemed like we were starting over again, from scratch. Younger people hadn't gotten the message. Each generation was starting all over again, as if we had amnesia. I think that once some of the major leaders were no longer on the scene or in the newspapers, people thought less about black consciousness.

``What we had failed to do in the '60s was to institutionalize what we were learning, so it would be passed on. My wife and I felt a great need to institutionalize black history, and we were looking for a mechanism to do it so that once folks like ourselves were off the scene, black kids would still get some sense of themelves, some pride in who they are.''

After visiting many museums, both here and in Europe, the couple settled on the idea of a wax museum as the perfect vehicle to promote black education. It seemed ideal, ``a place where the people would be almost living images, projecting their time, to give kids some idea that they were actually real, and at the same time, that they were people just like you,'' says Elmer Martin.

So this dedicated couple decided to open a black wax museum. They then began to find out exactly what was involved.

``We learned that the wax figures cost between $2,500 to $5,000 each, and most museums started out with 50 or more. We learned that there was a company right here in Baltimore that makes wax figures, so we told them about our idea of creating a wax museum. Naturally, the first thing they wanted to know was: Do you have any capital? And we didn't have a cent! The only thing we did have [was] some money we had saved to buy a house. We were cramped in our small apartment, so we had saved about $17,000 or $18,000 for a down payment on a house,'' Mr. Martin says.

The Martins set aside those cherished plans, and put the money into their new dream. Initially they bought four figures, which they carried around to schools, clubs, organizations -- ``anyone who would have us'' -- and gave talks on black history.

Their program was such a success that in a short time they had 23 more figures and began to search for a place to put them. The tiny storefront building they found on a street in the heart of Baltimore ``was in terrible shape, but we wanted to be centrally located. Once we started committing ourselves to this, a number of people helped us to put it together.'' People came and fixed floors, painted walls -- it was a real community effort. ``We had to do everything from scratch,'' says Dr. Martin.

Since the opening, the Martins have been able to add more figures, and they now have 37. But the best news is that they have been given a $100,000 state matching grant. They have left the original storefront and are looking for new, larger quarters. ``The city has offered us a number of buildings,'' says Dr. Martin, ``but all of them were too run down to consider, because the expense involved to fix them up would be too high.'' The prospects are ``very good'' that they will build a new building instead. The fund raising is going well, and they hope to break ground this summer.

In the meantime, 18 of the figures are on display this month at the Sharp St. Memorial Church, in a tribute to slave culture and its contributions.

When the new museum opens, Martin plans to move into other areas of black history. He felt it was important to start with the freedom fighters, statesmen, and other heroic figures -- the ones children are less likely to encounter in their daily lives. So he's saved the sports and arts figures for the larger location. How has Blacks in Wax affected the Baltimore black community?

``I think it's had a tremendous impact in the sense that blacks are beginning to say, `that's our place, that's our museum.' It's one of the few cultural or historical centers that they can point to here in Baltimore and be able to say that. We've had about 25,000 people come through the doors in the two years we've been open.

``We made a tremendous investment when we gave up the money for the house -- we're still cramped!'' he says, and laughs. ``But we don't feel any loss.''

For more information on Great Blacks in Wax, call (301) 837-6562 during business hours.

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