December 26, 2017

Photo Essay: America's First Black History Wax Museum

Sure, you could cozy up to a wax figure of Barack Obama at Madame Tussaud's in New York City, San Francisco, or Washington, DC, but the best place to see our former president in wax is at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore.

It's not that it's the best likeness of #44 there is—but this wax museum, the first of its kind in the country when it was founded in 1983, is way beyond anything that those "major" tourist attractions have to offer.

You see, the story of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum actually goes back more than 5000 years to ancient Egypt (then known as Kemet)—which is when and where the tradition of memorializing important figures in statue form began (usually bronze, gold, and copper). And so the collection of this wax museum also starts then and there with Imhotep, the presumed architect of the Egyptian pyramids.

Inside this 10,000-square-foot former firehouse, Ethiopia is represented with a depiction of the Queen of Sheba, Makeda; Mali has its place with the builder of Timbuktu, Askia the Great.

Then South Africa circa the late 18th and early 19th centuries gets its due with Chaka Zulu.

It's critical to start the narrative there, not only for its own historical significance. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a stark contrast with the next chapter of the story, with later Africans being exported as goods, sold off at auction, and lynched.

The museum unapologetically portrays the plight of the African slave, who was often forced to dance even while shackled, who was force-fed...

...and who suffered such inconceivable indignities.

Therefore, the slave ship section of the museum is a horror show—but in order for it to be truthful, it has to be.

Of course, children weren't exempt from the inhumane treatment—and therefore they're not left out of the museum, either.

Particularly disturbing is the story of a pygmy boy named Otabenga (not the little guy pictured above), who was captured in his native Congo and brought to the U.S. for the 1904 World's Fair, eventually ending up on display as a "race specimen" at the Bronx Zoo. Just over 10 years later, despite being granted his freedom, he killed himself.

And while you can't tell the story of freeing the slaves without mentioning the Underground Railroad and its lead "conductor," Harriet Tubman (whose wax figure was one of the museum's first)...

...or Dred Scott, who tried to sue for his freedom...

...there was also the lesser-known but no less intriguing Henry "Box" Brown, the master escape artist who shipped himself in a box to Philly to escape slavery.

But when the Emancipation Proclamation finally came about in 1863, the resulting abolition of slavery came up short in terms of ensuring the wellbeing of the freed slaves.

As no one would hire them at a fair wage, they ended up essentially in a different form of slavery, known as sharecropping.

And because they could claim no ownership of the land, black sharecroppers were relegated to the lowest economic rung and struggled to survive.

Some freed slaves moves out West for a better opportunity—so many, in fact, that the West has more all-black towns (mostly found between 1840 and 1890) than any other region in the country.

Some settled into leadership roles earlier than others...

...founding schools...


...and fraternal orders.

Thankfully, the museum equally celebrates unsung heroes of black history, like A. Phillip Randolph and the pioneering Pullman porters... well as local Baltimore heroes and heroines like Mary Carter Smith...

...Thelma Banks-Cox...

...Bishop Reverend John R. Bryant of Baltimore's African Methodist Church...

...and Freeman Hrabowski, president of The University of Maryland, Baltimore County since 1992.

There are the military leaders, like Tuskegee Airman General Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr....

...artists like James Hubert "Eubie" Blake, an accomplished jazz musician and composer...

...the black literati, like poets Phillis Wheatley and Langston Hughes and novelists and essayists Richard Wright and James Baldwin...

...and broadcasters like "Aunt" Pauline Wells Lewis, who spent a half-century bringing gospel music to the masses via her radio show (and paved the way for singers like Mahalia Jackson, who's also been immortalized in wax at the museum).

In fact, many of the Civil Rights leaders of the time used their art to spread their message, perhaps through songs like "Lift Every Voice and Sing," written by James Weldon Johnson.

Others protested through their actions.

Of course, you might expect to find a wax statue of Rosa Parks at this museum, given her own groundbreaking act of defiance, but you'll also find a depiction of the well-honored and awarded NAACP executive Mildred Bond Roxborough.

The nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, the NAACP is also represented in the museum by statues of Earl Theodore Shinhoster, Whitney M. Young, Jr., and Kweisi Mfume.

Meanwhile, William Hartley Hayling, MD (whose statue is one of the more recent additions to the museum) founded the 100 Black Men of America...

...and Mary McLeod Bethune, a former sharecropper, went on to found the National Council of Negro Women.

Of course, among the freedom fighters were also the prize fighters—as well as other star athletes—like Joe Lewis, Jackie Robinson, and Jesse Owens.

But the "greatness" of these blacks in wax isn't always quite so clear-cut—as in the case of Haile Selassi, former emperor of Ethiopia, who the Rastafari of Jamaica worship as the second coming of God (or, the Messiah) but whose infringements against human rights have drawn wide criticism.

We hear those more complicated stories less often than those of, say, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, or Nelson Mandela (all of whom have been recreated in wax for this museum as well).

But none of the pieces of black history—whether slavery or apartheid, segregation or Black Power—can really exist on its own in a vacuum. Each person and each era is so intricately tied to all of the rest.

Then again, you can't really convey 4000 years' worth of humanity in just one museum (or only in wax)—no matter how well it's been curated and how good the dioramas are.

And that means that there are a lot of prominent figures that are missing from it (though many athletes and entertainers were intentionally omitted, under the assumption that people already know who they are and what they've contributed).

But the collection continues to grow, so hopefully more locals and visitors alike will be compelled to venture over to North Avenue on the east side of town, an area that may seem unsavory to some (including my Uber driver) but is definitely "in transition," and for the better.

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