Black History Month: Sealing history in wax

Staff Writer
Palm Beach Post
Joanne Martin, CEO of National Blacks in Wax Museum, left, shows off the sculpture of famed jazz singer Billie Holiday. [ David Adlerstein | The Times ]

When Dr. Elmer Martin was a young professor teaching social work at Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland, he coached a Little League team of inner-city boys.

When it became time for the players to take their identification photographs, one of his young players came to him afterwards, and asked that his photo be retaken.

Martin asked him why, and the lad told him. “Because they got me too black in that picture.”

It was at that moment Martin, a product of the 60s era of civil rights and the Black Power movement, realized he had to re-examine his assumptions about the lasting effects of the gains made at a time when “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” was the rallying cry.

“Our kids were still back where we thought we had dragged them from,” said Martin’s widow, Dr. Joanne Martin, in an interview Saturday at the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and the Arts.

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“That was very disturbing for him, that we had failed to institutionalize our history,” she said. “We were finding that every generation was going to have to start from scratch.”

And starting the recipe for success from scratch is precisely what Martin and his wife, an education professor at Coppin State, also in Baltimore, set out to do.

They had visited the Potter’s Wax Museum in St. Augustine, and over time, Elmer’s vision took shape. “We didn’t know it was the origin of an idea,” said Joanne Martin.

By 1983, they had scraped together enough money for a down payment on a house, but decided instead to spend it on a rented storefront in downtown Baltimore, where they could put on display the four wax figurines that they had been sharing out of their hatchback as a traveling exhibit that frequented schools, churches, malls and even private parties.

It was by no means smooth sailing, and at one point Elmer Martin had to pawn his wife’s diamond wedding ring just to cover rent. He had just four weeks to get the heirloom out of hock, and when the six-foot six-inch professor strode up to her, kissed her finger and slipped it back on, she knew he had the commitment to see things through.

It was that passion that impressed noted wax sculptor Rob Dorfman, who had met with the Martins and proposed operating the museum, but soon worked out a layaway plan deal when he sensed the power of their dedication.

The first four figurines were of American educator Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass, slave rebellion leader Nat Turner and even John Brown, the fierce white abolitionist whose raid on Harper’s Ferry was a factor in triggering the Civil War.

The couple took in the famous wax museums of England, France and Spain on their visits to Europe, including poring over slave ship records in Liverpool, England, and studied carefully the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, and the Museum of the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina, to see how other ethnic groups told their story.

“It’s not a celebrity, not a horror, not a hall of fame museum,” said Joanne Martin. “The idea is to focus on those people who have been left out of that history, to build institutions, to maintain a sense of pride in our blackness.

“The exhibit is intended to convey that, to give a face to a history that has been faceless,” she said.

In time the museum grew to include as many as 150 figurines, including those that figure into larger tableaus, such as a full model slave ship exhibit which portrays the 400-year history of the Atlantic slave trade.

Over time the museum received government grants and loans as well as private endowments. It eventually moved into a converted firehouse, and in 2004 was recognized by Congress and became The National Blacks in Wax Museum, of which Joanne Martin is now the CEO.

This is the second year she has brought the traveling exhibit to Apalachicola, which this year included jazz great Billie Holiday; 18th century surveyor Benjamin Banneker; early 20th century surgeon Daniel Hale Williams who performed the first documented, successful open heart surgery in the United States; 19th century inventor Norbert Rillieux; Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American to study and work as a professionally trained nurse; American agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver; inventor Granville T. Woods; and author Zora Neale Hurston.

Merrill Livingston, director of the Apalachicola HCA, said about 300 schoolkids from the Franklin County and Apalachicola Bay Charter schools took in the exhibit on Friday.

On Saturday, with Martin providing guiding tours, about 30 adults and 15 youth visited the exhibit, with about 150 people gathering for the evening reception.

Making donations as platinum sponsors were the committee to re-elect Sheriff A.J. Smith, as well as 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which is the program that funds Project Impact.

In addition to a promotional grant from the Tourist Development Council, the exhibit featured exhibit sponsorships from S.T. Concrete Inc.; M&M Monument Inc.; the Bowery Inn; the Love Center Holiness Church of the Living God; Mount Up! Consulting, LLC; Covenant Word Christian Center; James and Cindy Donald; Michele Maxwell; Erin Griffith; Steve and Sheila Lanier; Fonda and Soudra Davis; Rick Watson; Sarah Williams and Myrtis Wynn; Mel Livingston; and in memory of Clarence and Evelyn Williams from your beloved children.

This story originally published to, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.