As a bus full of children arrived to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in East Baltimore for a field trip, several politicians stood outside at a press conference meant to provide hope for the institution’s future.

“Dreams grow, and when they are nurtured and watered, they grow into great things like the Great Blacks in Wax Museum,” which was founded by Dr. Elmer and Joanne Martin, said Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume.

Mfume and Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen announced Friday that the museum, built in a former fire station, will receive $2,008,580 in congressional funding to improve its safety, accessibility and programming. It is part of a multiphase $76 million campaign, with the ultimate goal of building an additional 25,000 square feet of space to tell more history.

Phases 1 and 2 of the campaign entail an expansion from 1601 E. North Ave. to 1611 E. North Ave. and construction that will help with upkeep. “We’ve started to do some work on this building with just infrastructure, roofing, gutters and those things that were creating water damage in our museum and with our wax figures,” President and co-founder Dr. Joanne Martin told The Baltimore Banner. They require an additional $17 million for the completion of these two phases, Martin said: $12 million for construction and an additional $5 million for programming. The next step in the project will be preserving the front facades but tearing down everything attached to the buildings from 1603 to 1611 E. North Ave.

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From left, State Sen. Cory V. McCray, Sen. Ben Cardin, Dr. Joanne Martin, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Del. Caylin Young attend the announcement of $2 million in congressional funds for the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. Deborah Pierce-Falenle, front right, wears a themed hat she designed for the ceremony. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

The renovation of the museum has been a long journey: The Baltimore Sun reported on the demolition of vacant buildings on the block to begin to make room for its growth in November 2015.

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The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the first African American history wax museum, was established in 1983 by Martin and her husband, who has since died. The museum’s mission is for visitors to “learn more about their American heritage and gain deeper insights into significant contributions to civilization by people of African descent” and “stimulate an interest in African American history by revealing the little-known, often neglected facts,” according to its website. They depend largely on donations to keep everything running.

While there are depictions of well-known people like Barack Obama and Rosa Parks among the more than 100 wax figures housed in the building, nameless faces also play an important part. Visitors are almost immediately greeted with a replica slave ship with life-size depictions of its tortured occupants. The basement houses a graphic lynching exhibition that shows the horrors inflicted on the bodies of those killed, beyond the murderous act itself. More than 125,000 people from all over the country visit the museum every year, Van Hollen said Friday.

The location of the museum is central to its goals, and was intentionally relocated in 1988 by the Martins from downtown “to a fragile community in East Baltimore so that the institution could serve as a catalyst for bringing a challenged community back to life,” according to the museum site. “My husband believed that the conventional wisdom in this nation is that you should hide your poverty areas, and once you succeed in hiding them, then you can succeed in neglecting them,” Martin told Baltimore Style in 2017. “He felt that some of our African-American institutions have to be willing to stay in our communities to make those communities stronger, and we recognized the importance of the museum as a source of empowerment.”

The museum was built in a former fire station. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

As children filed behind him into one of the museum’s entrances Friday, State Sen. Cory V. McCray remarked that “the one thing that Dr. Joanne Martin teaches us about is responsibility — responsibility to these neighborhoods, responsibility to make sure that this institution is here so that our grandchildren and their grandchildren are able to benefit.”

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Martin told the media that the congressional funds will “add to the 5,000 years of history that we tell right now and, more than anything else, to continue to say to our children that you matter. You don’t have to leave your community to find something worthwhile. Great Blacks in Wax is right here in the heart of Baltimore and the heart of who you are and what you are.”

Taji Burris has covered the Baltimore music scene since 2015 for outlets such as The Working Title and The 4th Quarter, and now at the Baltimore Banner.

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