Philip Freelon and Gary Bowden built the mission of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture into its walls.
Two of the country’s most successful Black architects, they combined the bold colors of the state flag with a striking five-story geometry, embedding the themes of struggle and resilience and the story of Black Marylanders into the black granite, glass, brick, and mortar edifice.
“We saw the museum site was next to the [Star-Spangled Banner] Flag House and that’s where we got the idea of re-interpreting the Maryland flag—we Afrocentricized it,” Bowden recalls. “It was one of the first things we decided. Black became ebony—that one is obvious—red became crimson, representing passion but also blood, yellow became gold, and the white we saw as ivory, which means enlightenment. By incorporating the state flag’s colors into the building, we set the history of Black Marylanders and Black Americans alongside the history of America that’s reflected next door at the Flag House museum. They are not separate histories, but part of the same story of this country.”
The design also includes a wide, ascending staircase and five-story atrium, which provides natural light to the core of the building. The dynamic red wall, representing pain and struggle, but also pride and accomplishment, starts at the sidewalk outside the museum, slices through its facade, and then rises through each floor.
After its opening 15 years ago this summer, the 82,000-square-foot building, which won awards for its design, was the largest African-American museum in the region and one of the few like it anywhere in the country. Freelon and Bowden also broke a color barrier, becoming the first Black architects to design a major building in downtown Baltimore.
Freelon, whose life and remarkable career was cut short last July by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), went on to serve as the lead architect on the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington. Bowden, now 80, taught architecture at the University of Maryland College Park after retiring from the Baltimore firm RTKL and served on the city’s Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel through 2018. He is still involved with the museum, whose calling remains as relevant and urgent as ever given the historical nature of the current Black Lives Matter movement.
“The museum should be a living statement, not a memorial, since the final chapters of the story of African Americans of Maryland have not yet been written,” says Bowden, reading a statement he wrote to the design team in 2001. “It should be as much about tomorrow…today and now, as it is about yesterday and then.”
The $34-million building and museum, constructed to celebrate the history and culture of African Americans who have faced obstacles and made lasting contributions to the city, state, and country, had obstacles of its own to overcome before opening in 2005. Initially, there were debates about its location. Some felt it should be built on Pennsylvania Avenue, the historic center of Black culture in West Baltimore. Another suggestion put forth was placing it in one of the city’s repurposed waterfront buildings. Former Judge George L. Russell Jr., chair of the Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture Commission, wasn’t having either idea, however. “Judge Russell said he and others [African Americans in the city and state] had had enough hand-me-downs, from textbooks in school to all the rest,” says Loida Nicolas Lewis, the widow of Baltimore-born, Harvard-educated lawyer and financier Reginald Lewis, whose foundation endowed the museum with a critical $5 million gift during its planning stages. “Judge Russell said it should have its own new building and he wanted it to be near the heart of Baltimore’s attraction district, the Inner Harbor, National Aquarium, and Port Discovery.”
Lewis, who died from brain cancer at 50 in 1993, was one of the nation’s wealthiest men and deeply involved in philanthropy in the last years of his life. One of his major goals was the creation of an African-American museum. That the effort came together in Baltimore was serendipity. By the time his wife, also a lawyer, was able to sell off parts of his business empire and fund the foundation that bears his name, the project’s design here was underway, but desperate for an endowment.
“It worked out perfectly,” Nicolas Lewis says. “We didn’t have to look at New York or anywhere else. We could do it in his hometown. Baltimore and Maryland have an incredibly rich African-American history and culture, from Harriet Tubman to Billie Holiday and Thurgood Marshall. He would be proud. If he wasn’t, he’d be coming to me in my dreams.”
“[HE] SAID AFRICAN AMERICANS HAD HAD ENOUGH HAND-ME-DOWNS.”
It is unfortunate that almost immediately after one of the museum’s most acclaimed shows in its history, the exhibition of 20 sculptures and 14 prints from Elizabeth Catlett, known for her depictions of Black women, the African-American experience, and Mexican people who faced injustice, the museum had to temporarily close its doors this spring. Catlett, who was born in Washington, D.C., and died at 96 in 2012, used her art to address issues of race, feminism, and maternalism. That exhibition, curated by former Executive Director Jackie Copeland, who took over the helm of the museum a year and a half ago, came on the heels of two other recent shows featuring a pair of the most acclaimed American artists of the 20th century. (In a somewhat bewildering turn-of-events, Copeland was forced out by the museum’s board after this story was written for our September issue, and former director Wanda Draper, who had previously retired from the position, is now serving as executive director on an interim basis.)
The museum has always striven to balance art exhibitions with timely shows, lectures, films, and panel discussions around current events—as well as serving as a venue for local artists. In 2013, the Lewis hosted the first museum exhibition of Baltimore painter Amy Sherald, later commissioned for the portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Three months after the Uprising following the death of Freddie Gray, the Lewis Museum hosted the first exhibition of local photographer Devin Allen’s work. That creative tradition continued last year with one of the most fun shows ever—EMPOWERED! Black Action Figures, Superheroes & Collectibles.
With the Black Lives Matter protests following the killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor by police this year, in tragic combination with the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects the Black community, the museum is trying to remain nimble while also returning to its historical collection and preservation roots. As Copeland noted at the outset of the protests, the Lewis has in its collections “artifacts and objects that speak to the violence that Black bodies have had to endure for 400 years.”
To help document the current moment, the Lewis Museum received funding in July for a new oral history initiative, Voices Lifted: The African American Experience in Maryland. Voices Lifted will capture, transcribe, and digitize 50-70 new oral histories from African-American figures involved in Maryland’s peaceful protests against police brutality, as well as those in the Black community impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“BALTIMORE AND MARYLAND ARE A NEXUS FOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY.”
Additionally, the project will digitize the Lewis Museum’s 112 existing oral histories. Among others, they include the recollections of Lucille Clifton, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and Esther McCready, a nurse and teacher who desegregated the University of Maryland School of Nursing in 1950.
“In the absence of written records, African Americans have often depended on the oral tradition to transmit our culture from one generation to another,” Copeland said when she made the announcement of the $57,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. “Gathering the voices and memories of those who have participated in past events has been part of the Lewis Museum’s mission since it opened 15 years ago.”
The museum, which relies on state and private funding, has struggled at times with financial projections and attendance expectations. It isn’t surprising the Great Recession of 2008-2009 hit the Lewis hard. Copeland, who has 30 years of museum experience, including 15 years at The Walters Art Museum, notes many African-American cultural institutions do not receive the support that they need to be sustainable. Still, she says, her job is to put “the puzzle together” and make the museum sustainable. One new thing in the works is a partnership with the Baltimore Police Department to provide education for cadets on the city’s history and the Black experience in Baltimore. Meanwhile, the museum expects to reopen its building this month for its next major exhibition, Freedom Bound: Runaways of the Chesapeake. A can’t-miss show featuring two renowned Baltimore artists—“Genius in the ’Hood: Joyce J. Scott and Tom Miller”—is slated for 2021.
Ironically, the shutdown of the physical building, while creating a loss in foot traffic, presented an opportunity to reach new audiences. Admittedly, says Damika Baker-Wilson, director of engagement and strategic initiatives, the museum was not ready to fully utilize its online platform. “But we adapted quickly,” she says. “Many of us have been working harder now than before as we try to put out quality content online. We’re here to engage, and social media is the greatest tool we have for that. We’ve got people coming to us [virtually] not just from Baltimore and Central Maryland, but Los Angeles, Boulder, and Philadelphia.”
The recent virtual African-American Children’s Book Fair attracted more than 1,300 virtual visitors from every state and five countries. It was even more than typically come to the jam-packed affair in person.
As the museum now prepares to reopen its doors, the ongoing focus on racism, Black history, and culture should bring renewed attention to the museum and its programming.
“Baltimore and Maryland are a nexus for African-American history, there are so many seminal figures from the city and state,” Copeland says. “Many people understand their contributions to African-American history. The lens we bring to African-American history and culture is also a lens to American history and culture. That’s the connection we want people to see. It’s a connection people need to see.”
[Editor’s note: The Reginald F. Lewis Museum reopened its building Sept. 10. All visitors are required to wear face masks while in the museum and hand sanitization stations will be available throughout the premises. Visitors must maintain appropriate social distance from others not in their group and gallery and museum shop capacity is limited.]