Photo Essay: Preserving Black Museums Amid Unstable Times

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  • Photos taken by the author at Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

  • Photos taken by the author at Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

  • Photos taken by the author at Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

  • Photos taken by the author at Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

  • Photos taken by the author at Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife and I took our first day trip to Baltimore as residents of Maryland. It was a crisp, mid-fifties degree Saturday and the sun was beaming gorgeously along the Chesapeake Bay.

We started our day in West Baltimore in search of the developing Black Arts district. West Baltimore is the majority Black segment of the metropolis that most people associate with Baltimore’s notorious crime-ridden reputation. In reality, it is very obviously economically-deprived, disenfranchised and neglected neighborhood (?) when it comes to city resources, but that’s a critique for another writing.

After leaving West Baltimore, we made our way to the Inner Harbor section of Baltimore, the site of various restaurants, retail stores and the famed National Aquarium. We enjoyed a nice socially-distant seafood lunch, strolled along the pier, and were lowkey dumbfounded at the difference a short freeway ride made between one part of town and another.

While at Inner Harbor, I found a billboard for a website of cultural spots to visit in Baltimore. Over the last couple of years, I have really gotten into visiting various Black historical museums, so when I saw that the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture was open, I was interested in checking it out.

Plus, we got a $1 off the admission through the Baltimore visitor website. Winning.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum is a three-story building filled with vibrant exhibitions highlighting Black Maryland history-makers and Maryland’s Black history. Whenever I visit a Black cultural museum in a particular city or state, I hope to find specific information that is native to that area’s triumphs and hardships.

The Lewis Museum absolutely did not disappoint.

Aside from my wife and I, however, there were less than a handful of other visitors there on a perfectly nice Saturday afternoon. Maryland recently began rolling back COVID-19 restrictions, and the Lewis Museum, like many institutions of its kind, has felt the weight of a pandemic-induced lack of visitation. It is also not a problem exclusive to the Lewis Museum.

Black museums, though lauded as historical landmarks that give context to stories of both an unjust and evolved history, often struggle with being underfunded. Besides the centerpiece institution that is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and its slew of multi-millionaire donors, many smaller Black museums around the country have struggled to keep their doors opened well before the pandemic reduced their foot traffic.

Reginald F. Lewis, the late multimillionaire Black businessman the Maryland museum is named after, was one of the first Black business people to build a billion-dollar company. It can be assumed his legacy and business connections he made over 25 years ago, can provide the financial security to keep his museum up and running.

What will be the saving grace for hundreds of other tinier, under-resourced institutions that house Black culture?

HOW TO SUPPORT BLACK MUSEUMS: allows donors to support African and African American-focused museums nationally and internationally, as well as the professionals who protect, preserve and interpret African and African American art, history and culture. Another option is to check in with your locally-run African American history museum to see how you can volunteer or donate to their cause.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.