ANNAPOLIS -- The former Mount Moriah Church in downtown Annapolis many days retains the quiet, solemn feel of a house of worship. But the building now houses the state's official museum on black history, and this month it gears up for its busiest season.
The Douglass-Banneker museum, which many days gets only a handful of visitors, is preparing for the hundreds of people expected in February as part of the state's observance of Black History Month.
"February is our busiest month," said Steven Newsome, director of the museum, which is named for two of Maryland's famous black residents, writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and engineer Benjamin Banneker.
Many visitors will be students from throughout the state who will come to learn more about the lives of early black residents of Maryland who often are not mentioned in history books. Newsome estimated that the museum gets 5,000 visitors a year.
The museum is now featuring an original exhibit honoring Banneker.
Banneker, who lived in Baltimore County from 1731 to 1806, was a self-taught astronomer and mathematician who wrote and published almanacs that accurately predicted movements of the sun, Earth and stars. In 1791, he was part of the team of engineers that surveyed the federal territory that became the District of Columbia.
According to Newsome, "The exhibit uses the focus of black history as a vehicle to teach about archeological and historic research techniques." Included in the display are Banneker's almanacs, scraps of fabric and pieces of utensils and dishes from his house. It also shows a piece of a pipe found at the house and shows how archeologists can use such fragments to explain much about the life style of the era.
The museum is governed by the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture, a nine-member board appointed by the governor. The commission also sponsors educational programs around the state dealing with black achievements and problems.
"We have a quality museum," said Commission Chairwoman Mary S. Johnson. "We think its exhibits, which appeal to all walks of life, are important enough to visit throughout the year."
The 18-year-old commission is studying the museum's operation in an effort to improve the facility and enhance its reputation, Johnson said.
"We will be trying to get more state funding," she said, "as well as seeking monies from private individuals and foundations in order to improve the quality of our exhibits and lectures as well as to develop more workshops and educational programs which will have an impact on the state."
Newsome, the executive director of the commission, has an eight-member staff that publishes a newsletter and develops those conferences and workshops on the black experience.
In March, the operation will be sponsoring appearances by the daughters of slain civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers in a five-college tour in Maryland. Said Newsome, "We feel that apathy and racial intolerance on the college campuses have grown, so we felt this would be a good audience to which to address the legacy."
Upcoming museum exhibits include "When I Look Back," photographs of Southern Maryland black women by Andrea Hammer of Saint Mary's College, opening March 4; and "Portraits in Color," a 24-piece exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution of famous blacks from the 1920s through the 1940s, which opens April 3.
"There are approximately 106 museums in the United States devoted to Afro-American history," Newsome said. "But this is one of the few which is state funded."
Newsome previously was in charge of black studies research and publications at the University of Illinois library, and also was curator of the Vivian Harsh Collection of Afro American History and Literature, the second largest such collection in a U.S. public library.
"My interest in black history and culture was stimulated by my need to express my cultural identity," Newsome said. "I'm not interested in being a separatist, but I am interested in acknowledging who I am, and I am a black man before I am anything else." His dream is to see Douglass-Banneker "mature into a model for small museums."
Housing a permanent collection of African material, photographs, portraits and clothing, the museum is seeking additions to its collection that would help document the black experience in Maryland.
"We can exhibit heroes, but we need to understand the fabric of the everyday black experience," Newsome said. "We are looking for things like the family Bible, spoons and artwork.
"There is a tendency for people to think that personal items of the past have no significance," he said. "But we have each helped to create our country's history."
The museum, 84 Franklin St., is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays.