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homes of color magazine

The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum, Inc.
'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 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 first.

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 east side.

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 our story.

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 minorities.

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 the exhibit.

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 a few.

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 Colin Powell.

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 museum."

  • "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."

  • "The Museum 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."

  • "Great video 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.

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