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A large spotlight has been shining on the Smithsonian’s new, crowded and compelling national African American museum in Washington, but that doesn’t dim Maryland’s own repositories for black history.
Maryland has over a dozen African-American museums of its own, from the National Great Blacks in Wax museum in Baltimore, to the Harriet Tubman museum in Cambridge, to the Doleman Black Heritage museum in Hagerstown.
Although the smaller museums can be overshadowed by the new giant in the District of Columbia, their local significance is an important complement to the national story — but with much easier access.
At the Maryland museums, there are no lines and you don’t have to wait months to get in the doors.
The 2013 Annual Report from the Maryland Commission on African American history and culture says Maryland museum attendance was over 7,000 visitors. On the other hand, the National museum had 305,000 visitors for 2016 from opening day on Sept. 24 through the end of October.
To know the full story of the African-American experience, both a local and a national point of view are necessary, said Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, a Maryland actor who performs as Tubman.
“You don’t just read one book on a subject, you read many so you can’t just go to the National museum and expect to know the whole story. You have to go to the smaller Maryland museums as well,” Briley-Strand said.
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore tells stories of celebration, triumph, and perseverance through art. Through the end of next year, it features an exhibit called “Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male” that displays hundreds of photos of fathers and sons.
“This is a very proud moment. My son is 14 years old and he’s an eighth-grader so he’s coming up through those formative… years trying to learn about who he is,” said Keiffer Mitchell Jr. — former Maryland state delegate and a current member of Gov. Larry Hogan’s cabinet — as he smiled at a picture of himself and his son.
The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum gives a glimpse of every era during the African-American experience dating back to Africa. The museum features wax figures of many individuals such as Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Tubman, and Frederick Douglass.
One exhibit from the outside looks like a ship, and when you walk downstairs you see how slaves looked, chained, on the vessel on their way to America.
The Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center takes you on a walk through the history of the county, from a World War II military jacket and hat to Arthur Ashe’s tennis racket.
Each Maryland museum has its own specialty and purpose.
“Museums are about the truth, that’s what we need,” said Briley-Strand.
Maryland has a rich African-American history, being the home to prominent figures such as Tubman, Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and many more.
The state was home to the Underground Railroad that helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom.
Maryland’s African-American museums provide an opportunity to share the history the state holds in the national story.
“For once, just feel what we feel, see what we see, and try to understand,” said Briley-Strand.