Tapping into Black History Reserves
Maryland dug deep for African American wealth
by Carrie Steele
Editor’s Note: Become a History Miner
As a volunteer or intern, you can help Banneker-Douglass Museum historians dig beneath the surface to find the stories behind their collections: 410-216-6180.
Historians are miners. They excavate the core of our past, headlamps lit, picks in hand and minds squarely focused on bringing truth to the light. They uncover artifacts, tiny and large, that tell vast stories, and gems of personal triumph and tragedy that gleam brightly into modern life.
That’s how Maryland knows its rich African American history, which dates back to the 1600s — through art, potshards, textiles, a decaying basket, photographs and a wedding dress.
Much of Maryland’s wealth of black history is cached in the Banneker-Douglass Museum in downtown Annapolis, which doubled its size last year to keep up with the task of reminding each generation who, and what, has come before us.
Inside the Banneker-Douglass museum is treasure beyond signboards and stuffy museum pottery. There’s a photograph of Frederick Douglass snapped from life and an invitation to his funeral. There are signs from segregation announcing “colored only.” Other photos depict life in African American communities: businesses, schools, a senior class trip on a boat.
Bringing stories and objects to the light is a race against time, which erodes memory and weathers artifacts.
With three floors of new storage and dedicated historians at work, Maryland’s black stories need not go to graves nor valuable artifacts disintegrate in musty attics. Added to the treasure already mined, they teach Marylanders of all ages how history stakes its claim in our minds. And they ensure that our history doesn’t wash away with time.
Historians do their mining in yards and attics. Last month, Murray Hill residents Robert and Norma Worden came to Banneker-Douglass carrying four boxes packed with treasure excavated during redevelopment on Larkin Street (now known as City Gate Lane) in Murray Hill.
Their boxes held antique bottles, pipe stems, coins, part of a liquor bottle from Annapolitan distiller Edward Weiss and a fragment of a Carvel Hall soup bowl.
The treasures were unearthed in the summer of 1974, when Worden’s family helped start a community vegetable garden on open land along Larkin Street.
“We’d occasionally find coins, shards, marbles; those were the best stuff,” says Worden. “My wife and kids would go over there and scratch around. Other gardeners were throwing these things off to the sides. But we were scavengers.”
He returned to scout for artifacts when redevelopment brought bulldozers and hoes to transform Larkin Street to City Gate Lane.
“It was open land, so I used to go over there with my kids, and you would see all these artifacts just sticking out,” says Worden.
As modern machinery dug the foundations for houses and cut through old wells and outhouses, Worden turned up pipe stems and pieces of glass, even black glass. Outhouses and wells are rich mines for finds from the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I remember coming home and getting my shovel to dig out an old well. When they [earlier residents] finished using a well or outhouse, they’d just throw their trash in, so those spots are rich in artifacts. That was a great treasure,” he says.
The Wordens displayed their finds at home on the mantel. Later, they packed the items away in boxes. Finally, they handed over four full boxes plus a shadow box of finds to Banneker-Douglass.
“It’s context that makes them valuable,” he says. “These things can be identified with one small neighborhood. They’re part of African American heritage. I thought we should donate them to a worthy cause.”
Digging in the dirt is the old-fashioned way to mine historic treasure. As long as museums have existed, they’ve worked in partnership with diggers like the Worden family. But not all treasure must be unearthed.
“Often people buy something at auction and then donate it,” says Wendi Perry, Bannker-Douglass’ executive director.
The majority of Maryland’s collection comes from families and private donors, Perry says. Nowadays, as people are more familiar with museums, they’re willing to donate family treasures for preservation, education and display for generations.
“It’s a challenge to grow a museum’s collection and preserve history while living people still know the history and importance of an object,” says Banneker-Douglass research historian Elizabeth Stewart. “If you think about it, that’s kind of a leap of faith to give an important item to strangers permanently and let them keep it and display it. You have to be able to think about yourself as a part of history.”
Getting objects is the first step. Getting beneath the surface is the next big job.
To polish any of these items from raw stones into gems, historians must investigate the past.
Stewart dons white gloves to lift a sash from a black Annapolis fraternity. Its silver trim on black velvet still hides in sewn symbols the secrets of members-only rituals and pageantry.
Another delicate fabric is the wedding dress of Lucy Briscoe, a music teacher in Annapolis. An upper-middle-class, educated woman, she preserved her dress from her 1929 wedding. With material security came means to preserve her dress. Even so, museum staff deemed the dress too fragile to display. Instead, they illustrated the gown with a bigger-than-life wedding photograph of Briscoe.
The fraternal sash and wedding dress are two of thousands of African American artifacts owned by the state of Maryland. That huge collection ranges from fine art by African American painters to photographs to marbles excavated from historic African American neighborhoods.
Perry doesn’t know exactly how many objects the museum has because some categories — like photographs — number in the thousands.
“Besides photographs, there’s also African art, a lot of memorabilia,” Perry says of the collection that includes items from the 18th century through the 1960s. Plus, there’s “a lot of archival material, letters, papers, deeds and letters written to people like Benjamin Banneker.” You’ll see one such letter in the permanent exhibit in the new building.
Mined from history are many small items from notable African Americans, like a spoon from Frederick Douglass, or a letter to Harriet Tubman. For lack of space, thousands of additional objects are housed at the archeology lab of Jefferson Patterson Park in Calvert County.
As well, some 30 or 40 pieces of fine art are in art storage in Landover. “It’s better to have it at a location that specializes in storing art,” says Perry.
With Banneker-Douglass’ new expansion, more will be on display in Annapolis.
There’s much more room for historical items,” says Perry. “We’ll get some of the [Thomas] Baden photographs. Dolls. Anything.”
Banneker-Douglass’ Claim on History
Banneker-Douglass, one of dozens of key black history sites in Maryland, is the state’s second largest museum dedicated to African American life. The largest — Baltimore’s huge and modern Lewis Museum — opened last year. The Lewis museum covers national African American history with a Maryland focus. Banneker-Douglass covers Maryland history with an Annapolis/Baltimore focus that concentrates on both metropolises and the space in between.
Both belong to the Consortium of African and African American Museums in Maryland, a network of nine cultural centers and museums.
Banneker-Douglass’ niche is not only African American objects and stories from Annapolis and Baltimore but also the history of middle-class life.
“That’s because people who have less money and are more mobile often don’t have the opportunity to save things,” explains Stewart. “They don’t set aside the wedding dress in a special box and hang onto it.” Much of the material culture of poorer African American life in the 18th and 19th centuries is pretty much gone, she says.
Only a few items — among them a sewing basket owned by a slave and baby shoes — remain. The basket is too fragile to be displayed.
But all is not lost.
“There are other ways museums and historians use to get information about that life,” Stewart says. Among other strategies, modern technologies help record living history — literally — for generations to come.
Mining Human Memory
People have been gathering around campfires for millennia to tell old stories and to pass on heritage. These days, even with no fire, firsthand stories still pass through generations. Technology preserves them even when human memory fails.
Recording oral histories dates to the 1930s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put the nation’s unemployed millions to work for the government. Works Progress Administration historians taped hundreds of interviews throughout the South with African Americans who either experienced slavery or passed on second-hand accounts from parents or grandparents.
“The most often referenced collection is the slave narratives, gathered by a few workers who went out to talk to aged former slaves,” says David Taft Terry, director of collections and exhibitions at the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore. “There were probably about two dozen done in Maryland.”
Those first recordings were reel-to-reel tapes, but historians have since transcribed many of the accounts, which are filed at the Library of Congress.
Today, the Lewis Museum has its oral-history recording studio, where stories from and about African Americans are digitally recorded. Over the past seven or eight years — well before ground was broken for the Lewis Museum — some 200 interviews have been collected in the ongoing project.
“The earliest people were part of the project that began this museum: early board members, architects and designers,” says Terry. Now, he says, “We gather everyday experiences from various cultural and economic backgrounds: people who grew up in early 20th century, people from mining communities, watermen and people from the heart of Baltimore.”
Five years ago, Banneker-Douglass Museum featured its own interviews with teachers, students and administrators in an exhibit on African American schools. That outreach project reeled in unexpected artifacts as people remembered items that they had at home and brought them in.
“Oral histories are great because there’s nothing better than direct experience,” Stewart says. “We did an interview with Virginia Hayes, who was a former teacher who remembered her first day on the job and remembered how scary it was — some of the kids were bigger than she was.” Such details in the person’s own voice would have been lost forever had they not been recorded.
Once a museum like Banneker-Douglass gets an item — whether a recording, an old letter from a local attic, a photograph, a piece of clothing or some other relic of daily life — the next challenge is digging up facts and stories to fit each object into history’s big picture.
“To research your collection adequately so you can really get the most out of what you have,” Stewart says, a museum needs time and skill.
“We have all these great artifacts, but sometimes a donor doesn’t know a lot about them,” she says. “Or they just require more research to really draw out the full meaning.”
One such object now awaits illumination.
Big as it is, the four-by-eight-foot landscape painting that rests in the hallway beside the third floor offices remains a diamond in the rough. Donated by Maude Callaghan — wife of Samuel Callaghan, an early black dentist who practiced on Dean Street in Annapolis — the piece was painted by George Mason, a painter from the 1950s and 1960s who also created charcoal and pencil portraits of people at Carrs Beach, once an African American waterfront community at Arundel on the Bay.
“That’s about as much as we know,” says Stewart. “We’d love to know more about the artist and what he did, what else he painted, what he was thinking.”
The first step in illumination often is going to the source.
“You start with the donor and glean as much information as you can,” Stewart says. “Then you talk to people who might have known the artist, might have known the donor. Sometimes people know something halfway, so they’ll give you the phone number of someone who knows more. You start to pile together the facts, piecing together tiny bits of information.”
Threads of information weave stories, which in turn help us remember attitudes, events and ways of life long past.
One such story stakes a prominent place in the Banneker-Douglass Museum.
One Rich, Worked Vein
No one could tell Herbert Frisby that he couldn’t conquer the Arctic. Frisby, an African American explorer from Baltimore, was inspired by the story of African American Matthew Henson to live among the Inuit people and explore the geography of the Arctic.
His road north wasn’t easy.
“As an eight-year-old child, he was told by a teacher that African Americans don’t accomplish anything as a rule. She said ‘you’re not going to be able to excel in life the way Matthew Henson did.’ As soon as the teacher told Frisby that, he became determined to prove that he could be an explorer. That shaped his life,” Stewart says.
His trench coat now hangs behind glass in the museum’s permanent exhibit. Frisby’s family also donated his travel notebooks, maps, cameras and all of his study collection of artifacts, including ivory carvings brought back from the Arctic Circle.
“By looking at his objects, things he would have used every day, you can tell a lot about his life,” Stewart says. “A lot of the details would have been lost to us if the family hadn’t decided to donate the collection.”
Such details left behind in history are often lost forever. If their importance isn’t relayed to the next generation, the objects and their stories fall by the wayside, too.
Carving Out a Space
The silvery veins of Maryland’s black history gleam from our collection, but there’s still a whole reserve underground. Historians are unearthing rough gems and valuable insights with every new — and sometimes overlooked — object or story brought into the museum’s collection.
These miners of history have brought some of their best finds of African American culture and lore to Annapolis, where they’ve polished their treasure into exhibits at the Banneker-Douglass Museum.
The old brick Mt. Moriah AME Church that houses the museum is a gem itself: Built in 1875, it was the first church in Anne Arundel County constructed by African Americans. In the 1960s it was used it for civil rights organizing. That history made it an attractive site for the Banneker-Douglass Museum, which moved in as the state center for African American history and collections in 1984, when the church’s congregation moved from the city center.
Then, old Mt. Moriah became a church of history, where historians devoted time and reverence to preserving old stories. The sanctuary, colorful stained glass windows and antique brick were preserved, and exhibits lined walls that used to resonate with prayer.
Until now, that was the museum’s main exhibit space. With the just-built expansion, Banneker-Douglass has doubled its gallery and office space. Now the sanctuary will again hear voices raised in song and speech. Its good acoustics make it a meeting hall.
On the other side of the sanctuary wall, the new space is finished with hardwood floors, a grand staircase, glass railings and a full view of the original church’s exterior brick wall and stained glass windows. Quiet spaces and a spacious two-story entry are full of soft, diffused lighting.
Inside are a duo of new exhibit spaces plus a reception area and new offices.
The temporary exhibit hall houses its first showing, called Annapolis Underground.
Objects in this exhibit only traveled up from the ground on which they stand in their glass cases. Excavated from the property that became the new wing of the museum, the items — such as glass marbles, bottles shards, pottery and toys — date from the 1880s through the 1960s and were recovered from two summers of archeology digs.
“The idea was to recreate the immediate neighborhood,” Stewart says. “As we were opening, this was the last empty space in the neighborhood.”
Upstairs, a long hallway with a painted mural of Annapolis lures you to the permanent exhibit inside. Objects, photos and storyboards take you from the slave ships of 1633 through the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.
Use your senses as you browse: study objects and photographs, like the wall-sized picture of Carrs Beach. Under dome speakers, hear stories recorded by living history actors. Touch beads and shells like the ones Africans were wearing when they were captured. Smell the mustiness of a black enslaved carpenter’s workshop, which is recreated inside the exhibit.
Interactive also is a wooden crate that kids can climb inside to see what it was like for a few slaves who shipped themselves in crates out of Baltimore to escape to the north.
Tucked away in the exhibit’s center is a small theater with flat-screen television for showing short films and amphitheatre seats for history talks.
More spaces for offices and new exhibits, plus a new three-story elevator, help make the new expansion a better treasure house of African American heritage.
Knowing Our Treasure
Our Maryland collection only scratches the surface of a rich treasure vein. The truth these treasures suggest runs much deeper.
“Even though an object may not be exciting by itself,” Stewart says, “when you put a group together and add maps and other sorts of information, they really start to makes people’s lives real.”
Stories that we learn in museums and history centers aren’t fiction. They’re real. They’re true tales that give us a sense of place and a measure of how far we’ve come.
Museums seek ways to preserve and illuminate what Terry calls the African American experience. That treasure can come from anyone — of any background. It’s a heritage that can’t be bound by museum walls.
Don’t miss history in the making: the grand opening of the Banneker-Douglass Museum’s new expansion on February 27 includes special tours and talks at the museum, at 84 Franklin St., Annapolis: 410-216-6180; www.marylandhistoricaltrust.net/bdm.html