Bus trip opens door to Baltimore’s history

Several miles outside Baltimore’s bustling, modern Inner Harbor lie expansive community blocks that are home to much of the city’s working-class population.

Despite dilapidated housing projects and boarded-up shops, many crumbling mostly-black neighborhoods cannot help but exude an important sense of history. Every corner tells a story. Most stretch back over centuries.

Baltimore still lives up to one of its proudest nicknames, “The Monumental City.” Statues that glorify past heroes adorn almost every city street corner and green space.

Fifteen GW students visited two of the more than 40 unique cultural and historical museums in the city Saturday. The bus trip was organized by the Mount Vernon campus’s D.C. Culture Club.

The trip, which focused on Baltimore’s African-American heritage, included visits to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and Baltimore Civil War Museum at President Street Station, as well as a driving tour through the city.

“We tried to tie a trip to Baltimore in with a celebration of Black History Month,” said Mount Vernon student Breanna Templeton, who helped coordinate the trip.

At the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, students saw full-scale beeswax likenesses of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Carter G. Woodson, the first contemporary black history scholar who established the forerunner of today’s Black History Month in 1915.

The museum’s first exhibit depicts the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade’s “middle passage,” tracing the process from the capture of Africans, their perilous transport to America and ultimate sale at auctions. On display are instruments of torture designed to force slaves into obedience. Among the most gruesome are spiked neck and waist shackles designed to slice the slave’s flesh as he or she worked.

A partial replica of a slave ship contains similarly disturbing scenes. Life-like representations of the Africans’ inhumane traveling conditions are supplemented by the written accounts of slave traders and witnesses.

Enveloped by a soundtrack of wailing and moaning, students read about the atrocities committed against the human chattel such as starvation, routine flogging and rape. Slave boats were covered in netting, explained the exhibit, because many slaves tried to jump ship and return to Africa, preferring to risk death than suffer at the hands of their captors.

Exploiting the African belief that the soul cannot be free if the corpse is dismembered, slave traders would often behead several Africans at the start of the trip to warn others who were contemplating suicide of the similar fate they would encounter.

With the exception of one other highly graphic exhibit detailing lynching in America, most of the museum is devoted to celebrating notable African Americans. Efforts of native Africans who have marked the world with their multitude of talent and feats also were highlighted.

The museum showcases than 100 wax statues of abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, innovators such as George Washington Carver and even contemporary leaders such as Malcolm X. The upper level of the museum is devoted to an exhibit of African-American children, as well as a special exhibit of letters of support and hate sent to Martin Luther King Jr.

The museum, which opened in 1983, was founded by Elmer and Joanne Martin to “improve race relations by dispelling myths of racial inferiority,” according to museum literature.

“The museum was very real, so real it scared you,” said Ashenia Haydel, who accompanied her older sister Latrice Steven on the trip. “I learned a lot of new information.”

“I wish more of the white students would have gone to see the lynching exhibit,” Mount Vernon graduate Titilayo Ellis said. “They would have maybe understood where African-American students are coming from a little bit more.”

During a brief visit to the Baltimore Civil War Museum, students were treated to displays detailing the city’s Civil War turning points. Though Maryland fought with the Union during the war, the state’s location near the Mason-Dixon line left citizens bitterly divided over the issues of slavery and states’ rights.

Baltimore, occupied by federal troops throughout the war, became a uniquely volatile center. The museum resides on the ground of an old train station and lies near the site of the first bloodshed of the Civil War, a secessionist-federalist clash that left a young soldier dead.

The PW&B railroad, which passed through the stop, also aided the flight of many slaves to the abolitionist North. The museum documented the case of Henry “Box” Brown who traveled for 26 silent hours in a wooden box, journeying to freedom marked as “cargo.”

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