The first wax museum of African American history in the United States, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is dedicated to preserving and promoting, through life-like, life-sized wax models, African American culture. Also, as the first wax museum in Baltimore, Maryland, it is located at 1601 East North Avenue in the Oliver community.
Founded by husband-and-wife educators, Dr. Elmer Martin and Dr. Joanna Martin, this museum began as a start-up, operating on a grassroots level, in 1983. Originally called “The Blacks in Wax Museum”, its name was changed to “The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum” after being officially recognized by U.S. Congress in 2004. The Martins developed their mission with the following objectives, as stated on the museum’s website, as their focus:
- “To stimulate an interest in African American history by revealing the little-known, often-neglected facts of history
- To use great leaders as role models to motivate youth to achieve
- To improve race relations by dispelling myths of racial inferiority and superiority
- To support and work in conjuction with other nonprofit, charitable organizations seeking to improve the social and economic status of African Americans”
In order to meet their objectives, the Martins commissioned several wax figures to be manufactured and created a traveling exhibit that was presented in settings such as schools, community centers and shopping plazas. Completely financed by the personal finances of the Martins and supported by small donations from the community, the museum took residence in a 1,200 square foot facility on Saratoga Street in 1983. Having experienced great success attracting visitors and tour groups from across the country, the couple sought to secure a larger facility.
In 1985, Senator Clarence Blount of Maryland sponsored a bill that awarded a $100,000 matching grant to the museum. Meeting its end through fund-raising, loans and endowments, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum moved into its current home in 1988. The site, which contains a Victorian mansion, renovated firehouse and two former apartment buildings, provides approximately 30,000 square feet to be utilized for exhibitions and museum operations.
Drawing an estimated 300, 000 guests annually, this museum highlights persons of the Africa Diaspora, past and present, and their contributions to society. Containing greater than 100 wax figures and accompanying settings, its exhibition topics include “The Magnificence of Africa”, “Rebellion”, “Entrepreneurship”, “Harlem Renaissance”, “Black Sharecroppers/Reconstruction”, “Educators”, “Movers and Shakers”, “The Western Frontier” and “The Space Frontier”. There is also an exhibit and area designated to African American Maryland history and persons featured are legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday; acclaimed ragtime and jazz composer/lyricist Eubie Blake; Baltimore city councilwoman and advocate Bea Gaddy; the first African-American Marylander elected to Congress, Parren Mitchell; and others.
Persons commemorated in wax at this museum include Akhenaton, pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty in Egypt and who is the first person credited with monotheism; Askia the Great, mansa (king of kings) of the Songhai empire during the late 15th century; Henry “Box” Brown, an enslaved Black man who, in 1849, hid in a wooden crate and mailed himself from Richmond, Virginia to abolitionists in Philadelphia; and civil rights activist and investigative journalist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Reginald F. Lewis, the first African-American to head a billion-dollar company, Beatrice TLC International Holdings, Inc; Bessie Coleman, aviatrix; Daymond John, founder and CEO of urban fashion line, FUBU; Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam; and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, anti-apartheid activist and politician, can also be seen. There are also non-Blacks, such as John Brown, abolitionist and leader of the raid at Harper’s Ferry; and Thomas Garrett, abolitionist and leader on The Underground Railroad, who are showcased. Additionally, new persons continue to be honored; one of the latest is the late Earl Graves, Sr., entrepreneur, businessman and publisher of Black Enterprise.
Onsite at The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is a full-model slave ship exhibit that details the 400-year history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In the field review, “The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum”, posted by The Team of Roadside America, it was reported that “ … what really distinguishes today’s National Great Blacks in Wax Museum from the one we’d seen before — as well as from any other museum, wax, Black, or otherwise — is its new, gritty direction. This place no longer merely celebrates Black history and culture. It also serves as the Holocaust Museum for African-Americans, with bloody, graphic depictions of the historic brutality and gore of slavery and racism.” Because of its graphic nature, it is advised to visitors that this exhibit may not be fitting for young children.
There have been discussions regarding the need for the museum to move to a more upscale location, preferably in the Inner Harbor area of Baltimore. However, as The Team railed in their article, “…the staff feels the location is where this museum can best reach its audience. They must be right, because Blacks in Wax draws hundreds of thousands of people every year. It was crowded when we visited. If it reopened downtown, as once proposed by the city, in the tourist district at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, with corporate sponsors and a board of directors terrified at offending anyone, it could never pull off what it has.”
Remaining in the Oliver district is the intent of founder, Dr. Joanna Martin. The museum has undertaken a campaign to raise 50 million dollars to greater develop its site … in the neighborhood where it has been supported and it supports. In her letter, “President’s Message: Visions and Visionaries” on the museum’s website, she wrote, “Clearly, The Great Blacks in Wax Museum will have a profound impact on the East North Avenue corridor. As we prepare to meet the challenges of expansion, we recognize clearly the critical need to work toward the beautification and physical renewal of the Oliver Community, where the Museum is located … Essentially then, our expansion program represents an effort to build a public/private partnership designed to create a stronger Great Blacks in Wax Museum more able to promote neighborhood revitalization, tourism and cultural awareness.”
At the museum is a gift shop where items, such as tees and books, may be purchased as keepsakes of your visit. As part of their community outreach, there are films, presentations and lectures made available in their small auditorium. Both children and adults can serve as volunteers. As a component of their educational outreach, children and youth may become involved, whether it is in the Junior Guide and/or Youth Summer Internship programs. For adults, the museum also offers workshops for professional training as well as teaching sensitive issues of Black history.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm and on Sunday, 12pm to 5pm, The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum offers tours, whether self-guided, group or school. It is compliant to assist those with special needs and parking is available. Additionally, the Alberta Cason Room and the Mansion are available to be rented for all occasions such performances, meetings, receptions and weddings.