Volume XI, Issue 45 ~ November 6-12, 2003

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8 Days a Week | Music Notes | Curtain Call | Museum Visitor
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Museum Visitor

Inside Banneker-Douglass
Editor’s note: This is the first of Bay Weekly’s occasional tours of museums in Chesapeake Country.
by Louis Llovio

Maryland is steeped in African-American history. From the abomination of slavery to the heroism of the Underground Railroad, much has happened right here in Chesapeake Country. Banneker-Douglass Museum is home to that history.

Banneker-Douglass Museum sits hidden away from the government and tourist industries of downtown Annapolis in the old Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church on Franklin Avenue, a lonely street ignored by visitors but for its prime courthouse parking. A quiet caretaker of culture and lore, this state museum has a big job: It’s the official repository of African-American history in Maryland.

Named for two of Maryland’s most revered African-Americans, scientist Benjamin Banneker and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the quiet alcove chronicles people whose contributions to Chesapeake Country were, for centuries, taken with no grant of either thanks or recompense.

Exhibits, typically running six to eight months, lead visitors into one or another aspect of the richness of African-American history in Chesapeake Country.

Running through mid-spring 2004, Heritage by the Sea presents how Africans used skills passed down for generations from West Africa, Senegal in particular, to adapt to their new homes near the Chesapeake. A second theme is how slaves adapted and survived in these estuaries and waterways.

Western Africans first produced rafts in 800bc, harvested crabs, clams, oysters and fish for over 2000 years, and began smelting iron to bring down trees, hollow them out and carve something similar to canoes as early as 200bc. This knowledge gave them a much-needed advantage in the Americas.

Of particular use were navigational skills. Slaves used this expertise to not only prosper in deplorable conditions, but also to find ways to make a living after they were freed. In more dangerous ports, African slaves were responsible for guiding ships into and out of harbors. One British captain of the time is quoted as saying that “familiarity with estuaries and waterways made African slaves very valuable as coastal slaves.”

So adept were they that, beginning in 1796, the United States offered a Seamen’s Protection Certificate to African merchant mariners, making them the first free citizens. Frederick Douglass used papers borrowed from a freed mariner to escape from the harbor of Baltimore.

By 1860, Chesapeake Bay was the primary supplier of oysters for the United States, and many freed slaves went into the oystering business. Like their forefathers in mangroves a thousand years earlier, they also harvested crabs and clams. But as the exhibit shows, these skills didn’t just come in handy for work.

Harriet Tubman, renown as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, used celestial navigation skills she had learned to lead hundreds of slaves past Caroline County to the north where Quakers and other abolitionists were well established. She lead the way to freedom using the North Star for a guide.

Banneker-Douglass is expanding to afford Maryland its first permanent exhibit of African American history. Set to be completed by the fall of 2004, the expansion will double current gallery and office space.

“The expansion is designed to complement the church,” says Elizabeth Stewart, research historian at the museum. “But it is not going to touch the church at all.”

Built by freed slaves in 1874 and placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1973, Mount Moriah is a living monument to the spirit of its builders. Saved from demolition by their descendants in and around Annapolis, it has been home to the Banneker-Douglass Museum since 1984.

10am-3pm Tu-F; noon-4pm Sa w/tours by two-week advance reservation @ 84 Franklin St., Annapolis. free: 410/216-6180.

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Last updated November 6, 2003 @ 2:07am.