BALTIMORE — Joanne Martin starts at the beginning.
“I had a young man from somewhere in Africa and he said that all his life, they had talked about those who were lost, about the people who had been stolen,” said Martin.
From the outside, the National Great Blacks in Wax museum looks unassuming, just a building in Baltimore. But your first steps inside take you to the depths of the slave ships that took these stolen ones from the African coast to the shores of some British colonies in the west.
“People talk about the speech, the speech that parents have to give their children about how you don’t do anything if the police stops you, but I think about the speech that parents would have had to make to their children in Africa when they needed them to understand, run and hide if you see some who look strange to you, who might steal you,” said Martin.
Joanne Martin and her husband Elmer Martin started the museum in 1983. The idea came after a moment with a young boy on the little league team they sponsored.
“We had ID pictures taken so they could play in the league. And one of the kids came up to my husband Elmer, very upset, demanding that he make the photographer take the picture over. And the kid said, ‘They got me too Black in this picture,’” said Martin.
To say that stuck with the couple is an understatement. The two bought four Black wax figures on layaway and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum was born. Joanne and Elmer Martin’s dream was to make little boys and girls proud to be Black by showing them the greatness of Black Americans in history.
"For me, these wax figures put a face on history, a history that has been largely faceless,” said Joanne Martin.
She hopes these figures inspire young people like Faith Wilson to love themselves.
“I want to learn about Martin (Luther King Jr.) and Rosa Parks. They’re my favorites,” said Faith.
Faith will learn about Martin and Rosa, about Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and about those who were taken and brought here in chains. Joanne Martin hopes those like Faith leave the museum embracing and loving their Blackness.
“As you leave this monument to human tragedy and triumph, remember us, but not in anger or sorrow. We did not ward off their insults and claims of our inferiority for you to hate yourself. We withstood their slaughterhouse slave ships, their seasoning and breaking for you to walk in unity and live with dignity,” said Martin.