written by Trisha Daigle
Ironworking, ship building, nursing, teaching, artistic and scientific advancements are just a few of the ways African American people contributed to the building of this country, and the building of Baltimore. So often the history of African Americans is viewed through the lens of the slave story and the Civil Rights Movement. However, The Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore is dedicated to more than this narrow narrative. This museum highlights the contributions, dedication, and success of African American people across many fields and disciplines since their first arrival in the US.
The permanent collection winds in chronological sequence, beginning with the ship builders, and iron workers from the late 1600’s to the contributions of African Americans through today. The story starts with labor. Interactive models of ship walls (you can give ship caulking a go), and oyster tongs greet the visitor at the entrance of the exhibit. Dried tobacco hangs from rafters, and fishing boats, and nets dominate the space.
Of course enslavement is a part of that history, and the museum doesn’t ignore that. But not all Black laborers were enslaved. Instead, they worked alongside white immigrants, and American born people, and enslaved people—caulking ships, digging oysters, and doing highly skilled jobs such as iron work.
A small replica of the Statue of Freedom stands near the start of the exhibit. The real statue, which sits atop the Capitol Building in D.C., is there thanks to the work of Phillip Reid. Reid developed and implemented a pulley system which
allowed iron workers to piece together the statue and raise it to the top of the building. Ironically, Reid was enslaved at the time. He later gained his freedom during the Emancipation Compensation Act of 1862. He lived the remainder of life in Washington D.C.
Harriet Tubman is notably the most well-known woman of the era. Born enslaved in Dorset County, MD, Tubman escaped from slavery and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Conductors and others relied on word of mouth to send and receive messages along the Underground Railroad to people escaping and those helping them move north. Given the extreme danger, and consequence of the underground railroad, communication along the route was quiet and coded. For example, the quilt code allowed messages about safe houses, transportation, and routes to be communicated through symbols patched into quilts. (for more information about the meaning behind the symbols, go here: http://www.broward.k12.fl.us/corecurriculum/tahgrant/resources/19_Century/Lucy_McGuire_Freedom_Quilt_Codes_Handout.pdf
Coded spirituals was another way messages were passed between communities of enslaved people and the underground railroad. The most famous spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” contains hidden meaning about the hope for freedom, but also specific coded messages about where to hide, and the path(s) to follow.
Deeper into the museum, you stumble onto Pennsylvania Avenue, amidst Billie Holiday, Chick Webb and Cab Calloway. In the 1920’s, the African American cultural and artistic explosion known as Harlem Renaissance spread from New York, to Ohio and Chicago, across the whole country. In Baltimore, Pennsylvania Ave and was the epicenter of Black music, art and theater, and was the home the famous Royal Theater.
The tour takes us through the Jim Crow years, the fight for the push for education equality in Baltimore. Highlighting such brave folks as Esther McCreedy who won right to attend nursing school at the University of Maryland, becoming the first black woman to graduate from their nursing program.
The collection ends at places of cultural significance in the Black community. There’s church pews, and barber poles, set up to remind us that life is happening all around us: in church, at the barber shop, and in the city of Baltimore.
Walking through the Reginald F. Lewis Museum is a stroll through another kind of history. Not of enslaved people, but of resilient, talented and intelligent people who made significant contributions to science, engineering, math, art, and music and to the making of this country.