Our 2017 Road Trip, Part 31: The African-American Experience


One of several quilts on display at the museum.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. For 2017 our ultimate destination of choice was the city of Baltimore, Maryland. You might remember it from such TV shows as Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, not exactly the most enticing showcases to lure in prospective tourists. Though folks who know me best know I’m one of those guys who won’t shut up about The Wire, a Baltimore walkabout was Anne’s idea. Setting aside my fandom, as a major history buff she was first to remind skeptics who made worried faces at us for this plan that Maryland was one of the original thirteen American colonies and, urban decay notwithstanding, remains packed with notable history and architecture from ye olde Founding Father times. In the course of our research we were surprised to discover Baltimore also has an entire designated tourist-trap section covered with things to do. And if we just so happened to run across former filming locations without getting shot, happy bonus…

DAY FIVE: Wednesday, July 12th.

A good night’s sleep helped put the hardships of the previous day behind us. Another middling hotel breakfast didn’t exactly kick off Day Five with pizzazz, but it would have to do till we arrived at better food later. Day Five in Baltimore was a departure from the previous two days — no Inner Harbor, no water taxis, no crowds of tourists, no afternoon panhandlers along the shoreline, no more shots of the Historic Ships or the Barnes & Noble or that ubiquitous, gargantuan aquarium in shot after shot after shot after shot after shot.

One of the most useful items we bought before we arrived in town was a pair of Baltimore Harbor Passes. Baltimore has so many museums and museum-style locations that they offer discount admission packages if you’re interested in checking out four different facilities. Up to this point the Harbor Pass had gotten us into the National Aquarium, the American Visionary Art Museum, and the World Trade Center’s Top of the World observation deck. We had three options for the fourth slot. One is their children’s museum, which used to be a thing for us before my son grew up; another is the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, which is probably a must-see for sports fans.

The full name of our ultimate choice, according to their brochure, is the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. It sounded more fascinating to me, and as an added bonus was within walking distance of our hotel.

Af-Am Museum!

Or just “African American History Museum” works fine for many purposes, I think.

Once upon a time, Reginald F. Lewis was a lawyer and multimillionaire who in the 1980s founded his own Wall Street firm, bought the McCall Pattern Company (my grandma was a fan), and later became the first African American to head up a billion-dollar company when he purchased Beatrice Foods (they of the cryptic ’80s TV ad slogan “We’re Beatrice”). His philanthropic side had already come to the fore before his untimely passing in 1993 at age 50, but posthumously his foundation provided generous funding for this particular museum, which opened in 2005. Three floors of exhibits, a fourth floor for research and education, a modest souvenir shop, and a staff who were most welcoming when this middle-age white couple came doddering in and tried not to look or act like obnoxious bumpkins. Maybe we would’ve stuck out more on a busy weekend, but on a Wednesday morning only a handful of other patrons were around.

Some of the exhibits are nationwide in context; many are specific to the Baltimore area, covering both officially famous personalities as well as figures of local historic prominence. Even the most intensively Baltimore-based sections were edifying in microcosm.

jazz Baltimore!

A selection of Baltimore natives with significant jazz contributions to their name. I’m currently reading through a jazz history book in which two of these names have popped up so far.

Douglass book!

A copy of the 1845 memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, A Slave.

Judge Robert Mack Bell!

Legal aficionados know Robert Mack Bell as the teenage plaintiff in the classic 1964 desegregation case Bell v. Maryland. He later grew up to wear this robe as Chief Justice of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

sports things!

At right, a uniform from the Baltimore Elite Giants, who played in the Negro leagues for thirty years. At left, the leotard of Olympic gold medalist and Silver Spring native Dominique Dawes, the first African American gymnast to win an individual medal, at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Liberia Masons?

I did a poor job of taking notes, but key phrases here include “Jerusalem Imperial Potentate”, “United Supreme Council”, and the Republic of Liberia.

Williams bass!

The electric bass of one Herman Williams, who played with Count Basie and Pearl Bailey.

railroad signs.

Mandatory civil rights history section offers repellent artifacts such as these signs…

bathroom door!

…and the first bathroom door I’ve ever seen as a museum exhibit.

Lucille Clifton quote!

Words of wisdom from a former Poet Laureate of Maryland, the late Pulitzer Prize nominee Lucille Clifton.

quilt 1!

Another quilt. In hindsight I don’t recall seeing or taking photos of that many quilts.

Freedom's Gate!

Local art on hand included Sam Christian Holmes’ steel sculpture Freedom’s Gate.

Brandon Hill!

Spoken Word and Fresh, two among several pieces by painter Brandon Hill.

ladies' hats!

I see this collection and all I can think about is Omar being a good grandson and taking his grandma to church on Sunday.

To me the most interesting exhibit was a series of photographic diptychs entitled “Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male”. Each shows the same black male twice: at left with only his face shrouded in darkness and gravitas, a challenging question as his caption, daring the viewer to ponder their initial impression; then at right, the man restored to his context of identity and expressiveness. After the viewer judges the left-hand photo, the right-hand photo either puts them at ease, shames them for thinking “AAAH! CRIMINAL!” or reassures them for not jumping to conclusions in the first place.


Photos by Jerry Taliaferro. Better summations of the concept can be found over here and over there.

Malcolm X quote!

Another keeper of a quote, suspended above the “Sons” exhibit.

I refused merely to walk into the museum, bob my head a few times, and walk back out. We took our time and examined the displays at length, just absorbing and listening and learning.

Before we left we also perused the gift shop, where I picked up a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, possibly the most Twitter-y thing I could’ve bought. They didn’t have any collections of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther, but I’m torn as to whether or not those would be a proper tonal fit for the museum in the future.

quilt 3!

A better tonal fit: so, so many quilts, apparently? It’s puzzling sometimes trying to figure out why Anne or I each photograph what we do.

To be continued!

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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