The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum,
'Taking you through the pages of time'
By Ginger Williams
Museum Media Relations Coordinator
There's nothing like it anywhere.a nondescript building on Baltimore's
east side that houses some of the world's most important African
American historic figures, more than 150 tributes to greatness.The
National Great Blacks In Wax Museum.
That the Museum is even in existence is remarkable.
It took a visionary, Dr. Elmer P. Martin and a believer, his
wife, Dr. Joanne M. Martin. He: a professor of Sociology; she:
a PhD in Education and the shared the belief that they had to
"tell the true history of African Americans."
The Museum's story begins with an idea and a traveling exhibit.
The Martins, then, had four or five wax figures, which they exhibited
anywhere they were allowed to.in shopping malls, at schools, in
churches. They purchased these wax figures with money they'd saved
to buy their first house. The house had to wait; history came
The traveling exhibit became permanent when Martins moved into
larger quarters - a storefront in downtown Baltimore. But soon
the wax figures - and visitors - required more space.
The decision to move was an easy one; where to move required
an entirely different - though not difficult -- answer.
Enter Baltimore City, who offered a closed fire station on Baltimore's
Baltimore's Inner Harbor was going through dramatic change, and
the Martins could have moved the Museum there. Thousands of tourists
visit there each year... all with money to spend.
But the move to East Baltimore was the right decision, according
to the two. Where else could an institution such as this make
the most difference; have the greatest impact?
In an area riddled with poverty and violence and drugs, it the
move here seemed suicide, but the Martins were adamant. They knew
their work could make a difference in the area.and it has.
In addition to the wax figure exhibits, the Museum is a haven
for the area's young people. The Martins hire these youngsters,
training them to become Museum aides and gift-shop workers.
Later, a computer lab was opened in the Museum's Mansion, with
hardware, software and training provided by Hewlett Packard.
Summer programs were begun, with young people "tracing their
roots" and learning the history of their community and their families
and teens vying for summer positions here.
The word was out. The Museum began being featured by media from
around the county and the world, including visitors - and reporters
-- from as far away as Japan. Nearly every week, Dr. Martin is
being interviewed by national and local media, telling and re-telling
Enter the Museum and you come face-to-face with Hannibal - astride
an elephant - on his triumphant trek across the Alps and Bessie
Coleman, soaring high above the Museum's lobby. Recount the horrors
of the Middle Passage when you visit the grim wax images of shackled
Africans aboard a slave ship. They're all on exhibit here, at
The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum.
Joanne Martin, the Museum's co-founder, is determined to "tell
our history" and pulls no punches in the telling.
This is evident from the "Lynching Exhibit," a graphic account
of the atrocities whites committed on African Americans and other
A warning is posted at the head of the stairs leading to the
exhibit letting visitors know that what they're about to experience
isn't pretty...emphasizing that children under the age of 12 maybe
shouldn't see the exhibit.
But, as Dr. Joanne Martin says, "Slavery and lynching aren't
pretty," and many visitors have insisted that their children visit
Visitors bear witness to Dred Scott, arguing his case before
Judge Roger B. Taney who, as a Supreme Court justice and staunch
segregationist, wrote the "majority opinion" for the
Court which stated that because Scott was black, he was not a
citizen and therefore had no right to sue for his freedom.
Across the aisle, peering from a crate is Henry "Box" Brown,
who literally "mailed" himself to freedom, and in another exhibit,
Harriet Tubman is helping a slave to freedom.
Look up and you'll see inventor Lewis Latimer, scaling a ladder.
There's Dr. George Washington Carver, Mary McLeod Bethune and,
peering through a microscope is Dr. Charles Drew.
Civil rights figures abound.Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie
Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Roy Wilkins and Walter White, to mention
Here, too, are Africa's liberators, including Nelson and Winnie
Mandela and Steve Biko. Our sports heroes are here, too, including
Joe Louis and Jesse Owens and standing at attention is General
On the second level of the Museum are images of the four black
girls killed in a church bombing. We read about the lynching of
Emmett Till, which many consider the catalyst for the civil rights
movement. We see his mother, Mamie, in the throes of grief.
There are Maryland heroes, too, including neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben
Carson and Billie Holiday and Eubie Blake. The Mitchells, local
civil rights stalwarts, are present, as are Ida Wells Barnett
and the Afro-American's John Murphy, who wrote of the triumphs
and tragedies of African Americans.
Earlier this summer, in Texas, a wax figure of Earl Graves -
Enterprise magazine founder and publisher - was unveiled and,
at the recent NAACP convention in Washington, DC, three new wax
figures were unveiled: Gloster B.Current, Earl T. Shinhoster and
Medgar W. Evers, which will soon be joined by Myrlie Evers-Williams
in a continuing tribute to civil rights heroes.
But in the midst
of all this history, the visitors say it best:
"It was wonderful! You should expand to Buffalo, like a chain
"What an excellent
museum! I suggest that the Museum publish a book about its
wonderful contents and wax figures. It would be so very memorable
to have a book telling about this Museum...a wonderful refresher
and keepsake about what we saw on our visit."
was really well done and reminded us of our struggles before,
now and to come.thanks for your work."
"A great museum!
I have visited several times. I believe that the audio in
the slave quarters makes a greater impact and enhances your
portrayal. I would truly love to see it put back in play.
Thanks for all your work."
on the making of wax figures. Praise God for continuing to
keep our history in the present!"
Comments like these keep Dr. Joanne Martin in the community;
telling our story. Busloads and carloads of visitors, as well
as walk-ins reinforce her decision to stay. More proof of the
correctness of her decision is that, recently, a Maryland poll
named the Museum fourth among the top five museums in the state.
And, in bipartisan support, the US House and Senate elevated the
Museum to National status and paved the way for federal dollars
to fund the Museum's expansion efforts.
Sadly, Dr. Elmer Martin died in June 2001 while on a research
visit to Egypt. His vision, however, continues to be told. The
work he began 23 years ago as a small traveling exhibit will eventually
comprise an entire city block and the Martins will continue to
recount the history of courageous Africans and African Americans.