National Great Blacks In Wax Museum
When we first visited the unique National Great Blacks In Wax Museum, in the early 1990s, it was filled with wax figures of uplifting and inspiring African-American role models. It still is. The honorees run the gamut from superstars -- Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr -- to lesser-known historical characters.
Henry "Box" Brown, for example, is shown emerging from the shipping crate in which he mailed himself to freedom. Matthew Henson, "the first black explorer," is displayed along with a polar bear shot by Henry James (another black explorer). The "Space Frontier" display honors three black astronauts -- Guion Bluford, Ronald McNair, and Mae Jemison -- in a tableau that looks like a set from Space 1999.
There are now, frankly, too many Great Blacks to comfortably fit in the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum. Some are in peril of getting lost in the dioramas. Colin Powell is flanked by two less memorable generals. Rosa Parks -- once rating her own display -- is now tossed off the bus accompanied by three other Civil Rights crusaders, none present in Montgomery in 1955. (one, in fact, died in 1954.) We couldn't find Muhammad Ali, although he must be here somewhere. For the museum, it's an enviable challenge to overcome -- too many heroes, with more on the way.
But what really distinguishes today's National Great Blacks In Wax Museum from the one we'd seen before -- as well as from any other museum, wax, black, or otherwise -- is its new, gritty direction. This place no longer merely celebrates black history and culture. It also serves as the Holocaust Museum for African-Americans, with bloody, graphic depictions of the historic brutality and gore of slavery and racism.
"The story's not being told [elsewhere] quite the way we tell it," explains our guide, Jonathan Wilson. "Sometimes people don't like to go into the pain of the struggle. They kind of skim the surface. We make no apologies."
The museum's new, no-holds-barred approach is immediately evident. The first tableau, "Force Feeding," shows a kneeling, manacled African man; two white slavers pour gruel down his throat through a big funnel. Next is a black slave mannequin shackled in a metal mask. "Tool of punishment and control," the sign reads. "The sharp spikes would cut into the flesh."
The epic "Middle Passage" exhibit is entered through the side of replica slave ship, and tells the story of the slave trade to a public only partially enlightened in the wake of Hollywood films such as 1997's Amistad. As you "board" the exhibit, you see a bloody, headless slave corpse tossed overboard.
We wondered where the head went -- until we walked inside, and spotted it on top of a barrel alongside a rubber rat. "Beheading as a Means of Control," the accompanying sign explained. "One of the first things captives often saw aboard the slave ship was the rotten, bleeding head of one of their shipmates."
Continuing down into the depths of the ship, clubs, whips, and nasty-looking hooks fill the walls, and the tableaus have titles such as "Thirst and Starvation," "Sickness, Disease, and Death," and "Branding." It's an intentionally claustrophobic space, even when it's only populated by a polite tour group.
We should mention that the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, even in its sunniest moments, is a little intimidating. It's in an old fire station set into a block of brownstones, in what its directors call "a neighborhood in transition." The ticket booth lady sits behind thick plexiglass. Visitors find ample parking at an old, shuttered supermarket across the street (a new lot for the museum is under construction.)
The museum walls aren't exactly perpendicular, and the floorboards creak -- but the staff feels the location is where this museum can best reach its audience. They must be right, because Blacks in Wax draws hundreds of thousands of people every year. It was crowded when we visited. If it reopened downtown, as once proposed by the city, in the tourist district at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, with corporate sponsors and a board of directors terrified at offending anyone, it could never pull off what it has. We'd recommend a trip here over one to the Inner Harbor any day.
We walk past the displays of Harriet Tubman ("The Black Moses") and John Brown ("God's Angriest White Man") to the basement lynching exhibit. A sign at the entrance warns away youngsters with a reference to "very sensitive and possibly disturbing scenes." That's putting it mildly.
This small room drips with gore and mayhem -- with displays of hangings and roastings and disembowelings. You won't see anything like it in any other tourist attraction in America. We can't remember if there were any signs explaining what the exhibits depict. We suspect that we just intuitively know that, for example, the eyes and sex organs (replicas here) packed into jars were souvenirs collected by lynch mobs.
"Those are the things that history tends to leave out," Jonathan tells us, as we gape at a severed foot and two partially de-fleshed skulls. "It is graphic. But it is what it is."
A senior lady sits watch outside the lynching exhibit entrance. "You'll see nicer things upstairs, hon," she tells us.
When we reach the upper floor -- the only place in the museum with a window -- we are in fact greeted by a cheery, role model-packed diorama of black Baltimoreans such as Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday, and Thurgood Marshall. But only a few steps from this inspirational crowd, we see a dummy of a hooded Klansman, standing behind two innocent, black schoolchildren. The Klansman holds a noose draped around the little boy's neck. Along the wall are photos of people having food dumped on them and being blasted with fire hoses. "We are not afraid," reads the sign held by the little wax boy and girl.
Jonathan smiles at us reassuringly. "We don't hold people today accountable," he tells us. We try to keep that in mind as we head to the gift shop, past a popsicle-stick graveyard and a metal file cabinet -- encircled by chains -- with black hands and feet sticking out of the drawers.