Why you should care

Because the dead and the not so dead have all kinds of tales to tell.

We’re standing at the top of the stairs. In front of us, a warning sign: No children under the age of 16. Everybody else? Stop and think. Hard.

Down those stairs … strange fruit … swinging in the Southern breeze.

I look at my friend, a gentle scientist who hasn’t cut his hair since his grandmother died. “What do you think?”

He’s a quiet guy. Looks up and away from me. “Either way. Up to you.”

That’s not a no and it’s not a yes. And you don’t make anyone, especially a Black male someone, go into a room full of lifelike lynchings. “No, seriously. What do you want?”

He’s quieter still. Then, slowly, “I’m trying to decide how I want to feel for the rest of the day.”

It’s the day after Christmas, and we’ve been strolling around the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. In the early 1980s, co-founder Elmer Martin heard his students at Morgan State worrying that symbols of their Blackness, like braids and dashikis, would hurt their careers. “My husband was of the civil rights, Black consciousness, Black power eras,” says Joanne Martin, Elmer’s widow (he died in 2001 of a heart attack while on a study trip to Egypt). “We both wondered, how did we get back to this point so fast?” Falling in love with wax figures during a visit to Potter’s Wax Museum in Florida — the trip was intended to entertain Elmer’s grandmother, who’d raised him, but she was bored to tears — the Martins decided to use wax figures to motivate kids and to show role models.

Whether or not you’ve gone in, that room stays with you.

Joanne Martin, co-founder, National Great Blacks in Wax Museum

For $15 you get to hang out with superheroes like Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman — both of whom are thrillingly (unnervingly?) realistic. There’s Mary McLeod Bethune. Billie Holiday. A baby-faced Barack Obama. Harlem Renaissance movers and shakers like James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston. The museum is also home to a slew of lesser-known Black folks, and not just the dead. Adventurers like Arctic explorer Matthew Henson and astronaut Guion Bluford; entrepreneurs like Cathy Hughes and Black Enterprise founder Earl Graves, both of whom are very much alive. In the works: a figure of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were used, unbeknownst to her, for major medical research. There’s a subterranean slave ship that drives home the grisly sights and smells of the Middle Passage — and the strength of its survivors.

Bonus: The museum isn’t at the Inner Harbor, which has a spectacular aquarium but is otherwise an antiseptic shopping and dining area where the city corrals tourists.

No, Blacks in Wax resides in a former firehouse on the 1600 block of East North Avenue, a historically neglected area that Joanne Martin lovingly calls “fragile.” In the early days, Martin says, Elmer would invite drug dealers for personal tours and debate history with them. “He’d tell them, ‘We’re trying to do something positive. We don’t need that kind of activity here.’ ” Martin says dealing has since “kind of disappeared from the landscape.”

Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Democrat from Maryland who spent about 15 years working across the street from the museum at the Eastside District Court, says the location gives visitors a real picture of Baltimore — the pretty and the not-so. Although some city officials pressured the Martins to move off North Avenue, says Joanne, “this is where we need to be.” (“There is absolutely no truth to this. The city is working with the museum to support its current expansion plans,” says Howard Libit, Baltimore’s director of strategic planning and policy.)

There is a lo-fi quality to some displays, and others are outdated. When my friend and I visited, for instance, Nelson Mandela’s exhibit didn’t note his death. Also, there is an exhibit on sororities, which, if you are me, is a downer. Martin laughs good-naturedly. “How can you be Black and Greek?” she recalls her husband asking. However, she says, Greek-lettered organizations like fraternities and sororities, working hand in hand with the church and fraternal orders like the Elks and Masons, were key to “the building and evolution of the African-American community.” As for the bumps in quality, a massive expansion, involving the deconstruction of 25 surrounding properties, will have the museum offering a children’s museum, theater and classrooms by 2018. And there is nothing lo-fi about the wax figures themselves: It costs between $35,000 and $50,000 to craft one.

I tell Martin about our experience in front of the lynching exhibit. “Whether or not you’ve gone in, that room stays with you,” she says. “You haven’t walked away. You’ve had to confront something, to grapple with whether or not to go down those stairs.”

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