Baltimore’s African American history is complex and fraught with contradictions. As Skipp Sanders, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture points out, the city embodied the tension between north and south during the Civil War. Home to the largest free black population before the war, it also was a major port for the domestic slave trade.
“Its proximity to the nation’s capital has always placed Baltimore at the crossroads during critical points in our nation’s history,” Sanders said. “During the Civil Rights Movement, prominent Baltimore-born activists such as Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Mitchell were key figures in securing rights for African Americans. To this day, Baltimore continues to be the birthplace of influential African American thinkers, artists and civic leaders.”
That makes it an ideal destination for travelers interested in black history. With a number of museums and other cultural landmarks—including the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail, a self-guided tour of the city’s premier historic African American neighborhood—Baltimore showcases an integral part of the nation’s past and present.
Reginald F. Lewis Museum
Near the Inner Harbor, this museum opened to much fanfare in 2005. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, it’s named for an African American lawyer and businessman from Baltimore whose foundation donated $5 million to the museum.
The museum’s three permanent exhibits include “Things Hold, Lines Connect,” which details how centuries of slavery affected family and community dynamics. “Building Maryland, Building America” shows how slave labor impacted the economy, while “The Strength of the Mind” focuses on African American accomplishments in art and education.
There’s also a special exhibitions gallery, a 200-seat theater and events that range from films and folk festivals to live music.
Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park
In Fells Point, this attraction honors two of the country’s most famous African American activists, who both at one time worked in Baltimore shipyards. Douglass, a former slave, became an abolitionist, writer and orator while Myers, a free-born African American, created the Colored National Labor Union.
The 5,000-square-feet of gallery space and interactive learning centers showcase the contributions of the city’s African Americans to maritime industries and beyond.
National Great Blacks in Wax Museum
With more than 100 life-sized statues, this wax museum is the first in the nation to focus on prominent African Americans of the past and present. Opened in 1983, it reveals lesser-known historical facts and celebrates renowned figures like Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes and Colin Powell as inspiration for today’s youth. The museum has embarked on an expansion to quadruple its footprint by adding a children’s museum, garden, classrooms and event space.
Baltimore Civil War Museum
On April 19, 1861, the first bloodshed of the Civil War occurred near the President Street Station, when Southern sympathizers clashed with Massachusetts volunteers traveling to Washington. Now the oldest surviving railroad station in an urban setting—construction began in 1849—the building houses exhibitions telling the story of Baltimore during wartime and the site’s role in freedom journeys along the Underground Railroad.
Eubie Blake Cultural Center
Named for the Baltimore-born composer, lyricist and jazz pianist who achieved success on Broadway the center offers performances, exhibits, films, dance workshops, speakers and youth programs. Eubie Live!—the intimate music venue on the fourth floor—features jazz, gospel, neo soul and classical concerts by local musicians.