Artist Oletha DeVane watches as the finishing touch -- rope being strung around a tree branch -- is applied to her exhibit at the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. It's a small room and eerily darkened, portraying a life ended by a nighttime lynching.
Not far from DeVane's installation is a lovely old black-and-white portrait of Lady Day -- Billie Holiday -- born in Baltimore in 1915 and who would go on to record, among many jazz numbers, "Strange Fruit," a song that spoke of the bodies hanging from trees:
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop . . .
Today the Lewis Museum, at President and Pratt streets near the Inner Harbor, will open to the public after more than a decade of planning. Organizers hope this will be a historic moment in itself, with visitors eager to witness the artistic, cultural and political contributions, as well as wrenching sacrifices, made by generations of black Marylanders.
"I think it's been a phenomenal experience," says DeVane of her involvement with the museum. Her exhibit is a tribute to the more than two dozen people lynched in Maryland. "It's exciting to see it come to fruition. I think it really nails the concept of African American history as part of American history."
It is a museum sweeping up all manner of black history and collections, pointing to rich lives lived under a multitude of circumstances. It gives space to the known and the unknown, the sad and the jubilant.
"Where would people in the past go to get their Maryland black history?" asks Sandy Bellamy, the museum's executive director. "Nowhere. This is the first place to go to find our own black history."
Just outside the front door, there is a small bridge symbolizing the proverbial "bridge over troubled waters" that many Maryland blacks crossed to become part of the American fabric, says Bellamy. The entryway is highlighted by a 96-foot-high red wall symbolizing freedom.
Of the 82,000 square feet in the museum, 15,000 are given to permanent exhibition space. The other space throughout the five-story complex is devoted to an oral history recording studio, a museum shop, classrooms, meeting rooms, an auditorium, a reception area and cafe.
The $40 million, granite-sheathed museum is named after the Baltimore-born Lewis, the first black to own a Fortune 500 corporation. After earning a law degree from Harvard, Lewis went on to become a wildly successful financier, eventually owning TLC Beatrice Foods International. When he died in 1993 from brain cancer, his fortune was estimated at $400 million. In 2002, the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation gave the museum a $5 million endowment earmarked for educational programs. Shortly thereafter, museum officials decided to name the museum in his honor.
The bulk of the financing -- $30 million -- came from the state of Maryland. The state will also assume 75 percent of the museum's operating costs through the second year of operation. Thereafter, the state's support will be lowered to 50 percent. The land on which the museum was built was donated by the city of Baltimore with a 98-year, $1-a-year lease. Admission is $8, with reduced rates for college students, children and seniors.
For years, museum archivists had scoured Maryland, pleading with descendants of free blacks and slaves to let them look at anything and everything that might tell a family's history. (The museum's holdings are augmented by collections on loan from other museums.)
So here are gathered manumission papers that a slave carried proving his or her freedom. And over there is mention of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an abolitionist and protest poet. She spoke so beautifully that many were quick to mischaracterize her. She once wrote a letter to a friend: "You would be amused to hear some of the remarks which my lectures call forth. 'She is a man.' 'She is not colored, she is white.' 'She is painted.' "
There is an etching of the Rev. Josiah Henson, born in Charles County in 1789. "We were all put up at auction and sold to the highest bidder . . . while my mother, holding my hand, looked on in an agony of grief," Henson once related. Henson, raised in slavery, was Harriet Beecher Stowe's model for Tom in her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
There is a display on Joe Gans, who shucked oysters in his Maryland youth, then went on to become a championship boxer from 1902 to 1908. Later in life, Gans became owner of the revered Goldfield Hotel in Baltimore. Gans was shrewd enough to parlay his celebrity into success. "On Friday and Saturday nights, those [hotel] doors were never still. . . . People kept banging through and they all wanted to see Joe Gans," a bartender would remember.
Matthew Henson, another onetime Charles County resident, went on to become an explorer, traveling with Robert Peary to the North Pole. "The lure of the Arctic is tugging at my heart," Henson had proclaimed. "To me the trail is calling. The old trail. The trail that is always new."
They are all here, Marylanders who claimed headlines -- Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell, surgeon Ben Carson.
And Christian Fleetwood, too. Fleetwood, born in Baltimore, served in the Union Army during the Civil War. For his heroism in the battle of Chapin's Farm in Virginia, Fleetwood would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. His 1864 citation would say, in part, that he "seized the colors, after two color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight." His medal in hand, Fleetwood expected sunnier things in life, perhaps a promotion. The promotion didn't come and the heartbroken medal winner left the army in 1865.