Dr. Joanne Martin recalled visiting a wax museum in the 1980s with her late husband, Dr. Elmer Martin and his mother— a visit that would help to “carve out” her life’s work. 

“We took Elmer’s grandmother to a wax museum in St. Augustine, Florida,” said Dr. Martin.” 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.

“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 established The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in 1983. Located at 1601-1603 E. North Avenue, the Museum is committed solely to the study and preservation of African American history, and its presentation of life-size, life-like wax figures highlight historical and contemporary personalities of African ancestry. The museum is the first wax museum of African American history in the nation. 

“The museum started as a traveling exhibit with four figures,” said Dr. Martin. “It eventually evolved into the museum. Early on, we had someone who wanted to take our idea and offered to build a museum and let us run it. But we told him that even though he had all the resources, he didn’t have the passion we had for telling our story. He agreed and essentially put us on what would be considered a layaway plan. We bought four wax figures, Mary McLeod Bethune, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, and John Brown. Shortly thereafter, we bought Harriet Tubman and Booker T. Washington. And so that was our humble beginnings.” 

The museum’s many exhibits 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.” 

“For me, this has been so rewarding,” said Dr. Martin. “One of the driving forces in my life is the impact I want to have on future generations. That is my passion. I really enjoy getting children excited about learning about their history. The wax figures help them to understand their history and ignites a spark in them.”

The history maker talked about Women’s History Month. 

“I appreciate the fact that we have a Black History Month, and I appreciate the fact that we have a Women’s History Month,” said Dr. Martin. “But when you look at women, and particularly Black women and their contributions to history and the ways in which Black women are burdened with sometimes solving the world’s problems, they are not being recognized when you look at the power structure and the ways in which Black women often occupy the low rung of that power hierarchy.

“But for me, it’s just as important to acknowledge my mother as it is to recognize a Kamala Harris. Both are important because the grunt work that my mother did, the sacrifices that she made, and that our grandmothers made to make us who we are in this society is what leads to our being able to recognize a Kamala Harris or an Ursula Battle or any of those who have been able to make valuable contributions to society. So many women have helped this country to survive, thrive, and grow.”

Dr. Martin has received several honors, including the Lambda Kappa Mu Sorority’s Community Service Award; Who’s Who Among African Americans; Distinguished Black Women Award (presented by Blacks In Sisterhood for Action); National Association of Negro Women Business and Professional Club Award (“Women of Vision Excelling in a Non-traditional Profession”); and the Delta Sigma Theta Community Service Award.

A noted historian, educator, and researcher, Dr. Martin performs most of the museum’s curatorial duties and has laid the groundwork for both architectural and exhibition design for their expanded museum. 

Her husband, Dr. Elmer Martin passed away in 2001, while the couple was in Egypt. However, Dr. Martin has continued to carry on his legacy. 

“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.”  

For more information about the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum visit www.greatblacksinwax.org.

Ursula V. Battle
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