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Dark days

By Terry Joseph
September 24, 2004

The Great Blacks in Wax museum, one of Baltimore's proudly listed tourist attractions, comes nowhere near to Madame Tussauds state-of-the-art interactive experience in neighbouring New York but in educational value, the Maryland exhibition streaks far ahead.

You won't see wax re-creations of famous contemporary blacks like Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Marley, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali or Stevie Wonder, as is the case at Tussauds New York, nor is Baltimore's offering set in comparable grandeur.

What you will find are the likes of Akhenaton, Queen Ann Nzingha, Hatshepsut, Harlow Fullwood Jr, Harriet Tubmann and graphic lessons on what slaves in those dark days endured to help build economies of the western world; plus scenes from the legendary Underground Railroad.

Interestingly, a whistle-stop tour on the previous day in Atlanta, Georgia, ended at the Underground Railroad, now a subterranean emporium touted as a regular point of departure for slaves fleeing captivity in the southern States; this modern manifestation situated suspiciously close to the fizzy World of Coca Cola exhibition.

Not that Atlanta sets out to deceive. The territory is littered with stark memories of the dark days and in fact, at the time we whisked through, even the skies conspired, with thick clouds churning up a dull grey canopy as the final flourish of Hurricane Ivan unleashed its venom.

And whatever may be remembered about Atlanta during the 20th Century civil rights struggles, last weekend's rain showed no discrimination, its pellets bouncing off everything in sight: The Civil War Museum, CNN Center, Six Flags Amusement Park, the Centennial Olympic Stadium, Martin Luther King Jr Center and Turner Field, the very Home of The Braves.

Atlanta is equally proud of its musical contribution. The highway exit to Macon reminded that the Godfather of Soul, James Brown was born there and similarly at Dawson, the legendary Otis Redding enjoys frequent and honourable mention. You could almost hear Ray Charles singing "Georgia", the State's most memorable salute and to be sure, it was a rainy night; brightened only by a spectacular two-car crash that turned both vehicles into instant fireballs.

North Carolina wouldn't let us forget The Wright Brothers or 10,000 years of Cherokee Indian tradition, although apparently less willing to admit among its other claims to fame that NASCAR racing was born of moonshine distillers trying to outrun police cars.

The rivers en route held their own stories. Signage for the Suwanee River carries the notes of the first four bars of the Al Jolson's "Ol Swanee", the Potomac sports a high-tech drawbridge and were George Washington to cross the Delaware today, he would no doubt use one of the more sturdy systems currently available.

The famous painting by Emanuel Leutze of General Washington standing in his small boat captures one of America's most celebrated historical moments, he braving a Boxing Day blizzard to surprise English troops in the Battle of Trenton in 1776. What the painting does not accommodate is the young black boy on the riverbank holding Washington's horse during the exercise, who froze to death on duty.

According to Florida Atlantic University history professor Kenneth W Goings, in his book Mammy and Uncle Mose (Indiana University Press), the boy was known as "Jocko" Graves who, having been declared too young to fight, asked to hold the general's horse as his contribution to the American war of Independence.

Morbid memory of the event manifested as the negro "lawn jockey" figure appearing on the grounds of white landowners during the early 19th Century, an ingenious semaphore that indicated to runaway slaves whether it was perilous or safe to be seen in the vicinity, through the use of colour coded ribbons on the arms of the ostensibly non-threatening ornaments.

A succession of green arm bands on the lawn jockeys indicated the runaway was pursuing the correct path to freedom and constituted "The Underground Railroad" which, as Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax museum carefully points out, was neither underground nor a railroad; as it salutes Jocko Graves and others in well-crafted wax renditions.

Historians estimate some 100,000 slaves used this system to escape in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War; by any reckoning a phenomenal communications feat and one which, along with grim reminders of atrocities against slaves who were caught, is reproduced at the Great Blacks In Wax Museum.

The "museum" itself is nothing more than a renovated firehouse, Victorian mansion and two apartment buildings, a mere 30,000 sq ft of exhibit and office space with some 100 life-sized, lifelike figures and scenes depicting both the horror and triumph of slaves alongside contemporary African American inspiration.

It began as a small travelling exhibit of 25 figures, mounted by Drs Elmer and Joanne Martin in 1983 and in the year following, settled at its current location on Baltimore's depressed East Side. This year is the museum's 20th anniversary, itself a story of defiance, given cramped conditions and under-funding.

Visitors to the northern US could do themselves and civilisation a favour by sharing disposable dollars between the transient tickle of neon-oriented entertainment in nearby New York and the crisp lesson on history's darkest days available at the corner of Bond Street and East North Avenue in Baltimore, Maryland.

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