These figures were the beginning of a piece of history that would change the face of a community in Baltimore City and reshape the traditional practices of preserving history.
The Great Blacks in Wax Museum is the brainchild of the late Dr. Elmer Martin and his wife Dr. Joanne Martin. It has grown from a small storefront museum on Saratoga Street to a sprawling building that covers the expanse of a city block on East North Avenue.
Through grants and donations Dr. Joanne Martin has been able to continue on furthering the museum and expanding it from just a building to a vital community institution and what she describes as a safe haven for many of the city’s youth.
The Martins birthed the idea for the museum in response to the fizzling civil rights movement at the end of the 70’s. “People thought they had arrived at the American Dream,” said Dr. Joanne Marti. "Young Blacks weren’t able to identify with the struggle.”
The late Dr. Martin would often tell the story of when the decision to pursue this endeavor was solidified in his mind. It was the story of a 6-year-old little boy who played on Dr. Martin’s softball team. The team was taking individual pictures in their uniforms for identification cards. After the pictures were taken a young boy came to Dr. Martin crying. When Dr. Martin asked what was wrong the boy replied that he needed to take his identification picture again because he was too dark in the picture. “I don’t want to be this black,” he said.
“That’s when we knew something must be done. The movement had turned into nothing more than a series of slogans,” said Dr. Joanne Martin. “My husband would sit in his office at Morgan State University and would wrap his brain around the idea for hours.”
Dr. Martin knew there was a need to preserve and promote the education of Black history and pride but he was unsure how to do it.
“We didn’t know what form or medium we wanted to use,” said Dr. Martin, “but then we went on a trip to Florida and visited Carter's Wax Museum and we knew this was what we wanted to do. Wax was the perfect medium. It was something that was uncommon and made telling a story more interesting and interactive.” With a plan of action in place the Martins lacked only the funding to get their project off the ground. They pulled together the money they had been saving to move out of their two-bedroom apartment and bought their first four figures.
“We had nowhere to store the figures so you could come into our apartment at any given time and find Harriett Tubman’s head in the bedroom, and John Brown’s torso in the next room,” said Dr. Martin.
The Martins created a traveling exhibition with the four figures that they had. “We went around to churches, schools, Lexington Market, and Enoch Pratt Library,” recalls Dr. Martin, as she laughs remembering the packing and unpacking of the various wax body parts.
“The last traveling show we did was at Mondawmin Mall, in either 1981 or 1982. After that we opened up the storefront on Saratoga Street in 1983 with 21 wax figures,” recalls Dr. Martin.
The museum now houses more than 12 major exhibits that include a host of life-size wax figures. The museum covers 5,000 years of Black history beginning before Christ.
One of the museum's most popular exhibits is a replica slave ship. As visitors walk through the ship the lights are dimmed and sound is played to mimic life on a ship. Visitors are forced to walk through tight spaces where they can see wax slave figures lined up along the floors of the ship like cargo.
Pictures of lynchings line the walls along the lynching exhibit. Graphic pictures of black men and women swinging from trees by ropes tied around their necks surrounded by smiling white people are just some of the exhibits that the museum has to offer.
But the museum is not just a business. Dr. Martin has worked to establish the museum as a community institution. “We have volunteer programs where children from the community can come and take active roles in the running of the museum by giving tours and doing office work.”
But for these children the museum is much more than just a museum. Many come to escape the chaos of their neighborhoods and homes.
“I have had children tell me that the museum has saved their lives. That’s what the museum is about. It is not just about the preservation of history but about being an asset to the community that it serves,” said Dr. Martin. This is the philosophy that the museum was founded on, to help culturally enrich the neighborhood and to help develop the community.
Brooke Nicholas, a Towson University student and a Baltimore native, admires the impact that the museum has had, “It’s like there is a nationally recognized landmark right here in your neighborhood. It gives the community purpose and meaning, and it distinguishes North Avenue from any other place in Baltimore.”