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23.6.05

The Passage and More

Ship holdThe Henrietta Marie left London in September 1699 bound for New Calabar on the central west coast of Africa. She was carrying European goods: pewter, glass beads, guns, cloth, and iron bars that were rare in Africa. These goods were traded for enslaved Africans, gold, ivory, and spices.

For more than 250 years, Europeans forged an elaborate barter system between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Some 9 to 15 million Africans were traded and forcibly moved. An estimated 3 to 5 million perished before reaching the Americas. After trading her European goods for gold, ivory, and spices and 206 enslaved Africans including women and children, the Henrietta Marie set sail for Jamaica in the spring of 1700. Upon reaching Jamaica, only 190 slaves were recorded as sold at Port Royal.

After the sale of slaves the Henrietta Marie headed home to England with a load of plantation goods, sugar, indigo, cotton, and log wood. The route took her through treacherous waters between the Tortugas and Marquesas Keys off the coast of Florida. The Henrietta Marie was wrecked on New Ground Reef, 35 miles off the coast of Key West. She was discovered in 1972. The wreck of the Henrietta Marie will be on display in the 2nd floor galleries at the newly opened Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, until January 8th.

The Marie is one of the many stories to be told of the African experience coming to America. On the 3rd floor, the permanent collection explores the tremendously important role African slaves played in building the country, with emphasis on Maryland. Mills, iron working, farming, seafood, and tobacco brought great wealth to this region. It would never have been possible without the labor of African slaves. This is all documented through photos, artifacts, and oral histories. In addition, the cultural contributions of music, art, athletics, and academics are also displayed in a chronologic format.

EstherStanding in front of a case holding her nursing caps and letters was a soft-spoken woman named Esther McCready. Esther applied to the all-white University of Maryland School of Nursing in 1950. A hard-fought year-long legal battle ensued, which was overseen by a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall.

Listen to Esther reminisce about her journey, and one historical name after another comes forth. Besides the Marshall connection, she sat with Dr. King, knew Malcolm X, worked at Harlem Hospital with the son of Marcus Garvey, who got his medical degree from the U. of Maryland after she opened the path, and on and on. The horrors of lynching, the civil rights struggles, and the contributions of contempory African Americans are also extensively recorded.

The personal connections are what makes the Lewis Museum work best. There are countless untold and newly reconstructed stories. They're off to a good start with this brand-new $33 million, 82,000 square foot building. How to keep it all fresh and get enough visitors through the doors and make their budget will be a challenge. When the idea for this museum was first mentioned, my reaction was, can't this be incorporated into an existing museum? The Baltimore Museum of Art or the Maryland Historical Society? The Historical Society's collections would be a huge resource to pick from. I do however understand the need to stand alone as an institution. I wish them great success.

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