In celebration of Black History Month, The Baltimore Times will be publishing a series of articles about The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. Located at 1601-1603 E. North Avenue, The Museum was established in 1983 by Dr. Joanne Martin and her late husband, Dr. Elmer Martin. The Museum is the first wax museum of African American history in the nation. This is the first of the series, which will also highlight some of the Museums wax figures.
February marks Black History Month, a special annual observance honoring the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history. Situated at 1601-1603 E. North Avenue in Baltimore City is a place that highlights these triumphs and struggles throughout the entire year. It’s the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
Recorded in wax are all the noble ways African Americans have participated in the building of this country, from soldiers in the Civil War to members of the Freemasons. From the Western frontier to polar exploration to the space race, African Americans are highlighted for their contributions.
Committed solely to the study and preservation of African American history, and its presentation of life-size, life-like wax figures that highlight historical and contemporary personalities of African ancestry, the museum has been in existence for 40 years after being established in 1983 by Dr. Joanne Martin and her late husband, Dr. Elmer Martin.
“We took Elmer’s grandmother to a wax museum in St. Augustine, Florida,” said Dr. Martin recalling how the museum started. “I had never been, and for me and Elmer, just the experience of the wax museum was so compelling to us. It would become a life-changing moment. When we came back, Elmer spent a day in the Library of Congress researching whether there was a Black History wax museum.”
She added, “He came back and said there was none. We wanted to put a face on our history that had been faceless, and all of this would lead to us embarking on what would become The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.”
The Martins used their savings to embark on their trailblazing journey.
“Our dream took form in 1980 when we purchased four wax figures with the money we had saved to make a down payment on a house,” recalled Dr. Martin. “We carried the figures to schools, churches, shopping malls, and almost anywhere people would allow us to set up an exhibit. Little did we know that by 1983, we would have a small storefront museum in downtown Baltimore, twenty-two wax figures, and the good wishes and support of many loyal friends.”
She added, “The possibility that in 1988 we would be celebrating the grand opening of a 10,000-square-foot facility on East North Avenue seemed almost unimaginable. But we always knew that a higher power than the two of us was guiding this effort.”
The storefront location was on Saratoga Street, and the initial four wax figures were Mary McLeod Bethune, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, and John Brown, who would soon be joined by Harriet Tubman and Booker T. Washington.
Its North Avenue location features an array of exhibits and wax figures. They include “A Journey to Freedom” whose wax figures include Henry “Box” Brown, and W.E.B. DuBois, “The Underground Railroad” featuring wax figures of Thomas Garrett and Harriet Tubman, and “The Slavery Era” with its immersive “Middle Passage” and “The Horror of Captivity.”
An immersive slave ship replica, which touts a life-size re-creation of the dark belly of a 19th-century slave ship, shows figures in the dank ship’s hold—their bodies crushed, but not their spirits. Dr. Martin credits the remarkable slave ship replica and much of all that the museum offers to the vision of her late husband. Dr. Martin passed away in 2001, while the couple were in Egypt.
“I’m always going to give honor to Elmer because he was our visionary, and so much of what we do can be credited to him,” said Dr. Martin. “I marvel at his genius and just pray to God that I can come close to it in carrying on his memory.”
A noted historian, educator, and researcher, Dr. Martin continues to carry on the legacy of her pioneering husband. Dr. Martin who received a BA from Florida A&M University; MA degrees from Atlanta University, Atlanta Georgia and Case Western Reserve University; and her PhD from Howard University, performs most of the museum’s curatorial duties and has laid the groundwork for both architectural and exhibition design for their expanded museum.
The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is gearing up for a multi-million dollar facility spanning 1601- 1611 East North Avenue that would require the temporary relocation of its treasured wax figures. Described as the cornerstone of a vibrant revitalization initiative in the East Baltimore corridor, these efforts include 25,000 square feet of new construction; 10,000 square feet of renovated space; 25,000 square feet of permanent and changing exhibition areas, an orientation theatre; community event space; a café; 200-seat theatre/auditorium; and a Museum store.
Immersive 3D Virtual Reality Tours, Augmented Reality Experiences, Holographic
Displays, and Animation along with an ADA accessible facility with a new elevator are also being planned.
For more information visit https://www.greatblacksinwax.org/