CHILDREN can get an educational and visually stunning crash course in Black history at Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum, which includes exhibits ranging from the Queen of Sheba to Gen. Colin Powell.
The museum, founded in 1983 by Baltimore authors and scholars Elmer P. Martin and Joanne Mitchell Martin, features wax depictions of more than 100 Africans and African Americans of note, accompanied by brief vignettes describing their accomplishments.
The exhibits go back as far as ancient Africa, with figures dressed in rich gold and animal print costumes. Makeda, the legendary Queen of Sheba, stands tall and proud in a room with Queen Nzinga, who fended off Portuguese would-be slave traders from Angola in the 16th century, and Imhotep, a famed Egyptian pioneer in medicine.
Other parts of the three-floored museum feature such history-makers as Benjamin Banneker, who helped lay out the streets of Washington, and African Methodist Episcopal Church founder Richard Allen. Also featured are Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave who was the first to die in the Revolutionary War, and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman.
Henry "Box" Brown, who escaped slavery by shipping himself from Richmond to Philadelphia is also depicted. Once Brown was free, he used the box as a platform to speak out against slavery. In his wax form, Brown sits inside his box and his hand moves mechanically back and forth.
But parents should mentally prepare themselves and their children before reaching the emotional high point of the museum: a re-created slave ship.
Visitors pass the captain's quarters to the left and on the way down the stairs, eerie and sorrowful noises pipe in -- a recording of wailing women, phlegmy coughs and sounds of the sea.
In the hull of a ship is a stunning scene depicted entirely in wax:
A woman's wrists are tied to a whipping post, her body forming an arc with her legs hanging limp on the floor. Blood pours from thick gashes in the woman's ebony skin.
Two white men force a brown pasty mixture down a black man's throat through a funnel. The severed head of a black man sits on a wooden barrel.
Emaciated little boys wearing only burlap loin cloths and neck chains lie packed in cupboard-sized spaces. Many of the slaves, packed horizontally hip to hip, appear comatose or dead and lie near rats.
Museum workers admit the images can be quite unsettling.
"Some of the things we have are quite graphic," said the Rev. Michael John Baylor, one of the museum's docents. "We have warning signs on some of the scenes to guard against that. Some kids are frightened because it's a little darker in the slave ship. We always have one or two who are too frightened to stay in there."
Baylor says to prepare people for the scene, they show visitors a video about the slave trade. He said often the people who are the most affected by the images are the older people. The docents try to soothe the fears of the younger visitors by assuring them that the figures aren't actual people.
There is another equally gruesome stop on the museum tour: the lynching exhibit. It features vivid photographs of hanging black men accompanied by written vignettes describing their deaths. This portion sits on a lower floor and only children 12 and older are admitted.
Dwayne Parris of Burtonsville who visited the museum recently with his wife, Diane, 3-year-old daughter Deana and 2-year-old son Donovan, said the more upbeat wax depictions helped the little ones to get over the experience of seeing the bowels of the slave ship.
"After we came out, I showed [Deana] the exhibit with the Africans, and I told her `the man in the ship was being very mean, but look,' " he says, pointing to another wax depiction of white abolitionist Thomas Garrett helping a passenger on the Underground Railroad up a chimney.
" `He's doing that to help him. That's because he's very good.' It's all connected."
It's a difficult lesson for a 3-year-old, but Dwayne Parris believes the knowledge that the family gained in the trip made it worthwhile.
"I think it's good for children," he said. "It helps to reflect on our history and the obstacles we've had to overcome. . . . People really suffered. Millions and millions of people died. We have to teach our children our history. It brings out our own self-worth. People will realize we are a strong people."
Parris said it might be years before his children fully understand what sacrifice their ancestors made. In the meantime, he says he will try to give his kids as many opportunities to learn about their forefathers as he can.
"When my son is older," he said, "we'll be back."
GREAT BLACKS IN WAX MUSEUM -- 1601-03 E. North Ave., Baltimore. 410/563-3404. Tuesday through Saturday from 9 to 6 and Sundays from noon to 6. Admission $6, $5.75 seniors and college students, $4.25 ages 12-17, $3.75 ages 2-11, (under 2 free).