There is nothing I have visited quite like the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, which is located in the heart of Baltimore. As its name implies, this is a wax museum. Art its figures are not, but they serve their purpose to show history in the third dimension. And they are far more real to one of the museum’s biggest target audiences, children, than to most adults.
Doctors Elmer and Joanne Martin opened this museum on Saratoga Street in 1983 with the objectives, according to the museum’s website, “to stimulate an interest in African American history by revealing the little-known, often-neglected facts of history, to use great leaders as role models to motivate youth to achieve, to improve race relations by dispelling myths of racial inferiority and superiority, [and] to support and work in conjunction with other nonprofit, charitable organizations seeking to improve the social and economic status of African Americans.” In the first two years they had 2,000 students visit. With so much traffic, by 1985 this former storefront could no longer easily accommodate so many. With the help of a $100,000 state grant and $100,000 in matched funds raised via donations, the museum moved into a former firehouse on East North Avenue. It is currently looking to relocate and expand once more.
The museum highlights a number of black lives, most of whom Americans know little to nothing, about, at least not if they just read American history textbooks. Escaped slave Crispus Attucks was the first American to die in combat against the British during the American Revolution. Benjamin Banneker, a mathematical genius born in Maryland before the Revolution, was tasked by George Washington to layout the streets of the District of Columbia. Granville T. Woods, born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1856, became an engineer who took out fifty patents in his lifetime. He invented the “Synchronous Multiple Railway Telegraph,” which greatly increased the speed of communication for telegraphs and telephones. How that was done is well beyond me, but, according to the information sign, it “also allowed train engineers to be warned of trains in front or behind.”
The museum also explores the nooks and crannies of American history from which blacks tend to be left out. A good example is the Wild West, where African-Americans were buffalo soldiers, explorers, fur traders, trappers, cowboys, wranglers and homesteaders. Examples abound. The discovery of Arizona is attributed to fellow named Estevanico. Chicago was founded by Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable. Jim Beckworth was a mountain man who discovered one of the passes that allowed wagons to go farther west. Cherokee Bill was an infamous and much feared outlaw. According to one of the museum’s information signs, “so many blacks trekked westward between 1840 and 1890 that today … there are more all-black towns in the West than any other section of the country.” One of which (though fictional) appears in the Netflix Western series Godless.