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Wax Museum Focuses on African-Americans

  • Deborah Block

A small museum in the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore, Maryland is telling the story of African-Americans through wax figures. The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is the first of its kind to focus on that history. The museum looks at the suffering African-Americans endured, as well as their accomplishments.

The 150 wax figures in the museum include educator and author Booker T. Washington, jazz legend Eubie Blake, and the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. There’s also Harriett Tubman, who before the Civil War, helped fugitive slaves escape along the Underground Railroad -- a network of secret safe houses. And renowned civil rights leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior.

The privately-owned museum was founded 30 years ago by Elmer and Joanne Martin, both educators, who wanted to counter the flawed portrayals of black Americans they often found in history books.

Deborah Pierce Fakunle is on the museum’s board of directors.

“The concept of the museum was to put a face on our history. It was done using wax figures because wax figures can make the history life-like,” Fakunle said.

That historical journey begins in Africa and culminates with America's first black president, Barack Obama.

Ushango Owens was surprised at how real some of the wax figures appear. “I was coming through one corridor and I turned around and I thought it was a person and it jolted me a little bit,” Owens said.

As he leads visitors around, tour guide Tom Saunders points to fascinating stories, including the tale of Henry Brown, a slave who escaped by hiding in a box and shipping himself to a city where he was freed. And Queen Ann Nzingha, who ruled Angola for 50 years.

“Any slave trader who came into her territory, she killed them. No slave came from Angola until the death of Queen Ann Nzingha in 1663,” Saunders said.

A replica of a 19th century slave ship shows the misery on board -- Africans crammed into tiny spaces. The exhibit had an impact on Waymon Lefall, who says many African-Americans don’t realize how horrible the conditions were.

“More people should know about it, because if you don’t know your past, it’s kind of hard to know where you’re going in the future,” Lefall said.

Saunders says visitors learn how overseers controlled slaves on U.S. plantations, including restraining them with an iron mask.

“Once this was placed over your head you could neither eat nor drink. And the mask is mounted to the wall so he’s suspended by his head," Saunders said.

The exhibits also presents important but less well-known African-Americans, such as medical researcher Charles Drew, whose work led to the development of blood banks, and Guy Bluford, the first African-American in space.

Shirron Rice was amazed at what she learned. “A lot about my African heritage, a lot of people that I’d never even heard of or knew existed. I’m now aware of a lot of different things,” she said.

The small museum has big plans - to expand in two years to showcase more about African-Americans' struggles, progress and hopes for the future.