The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum continues to be one of Baltimore's most popular attractions, bringing in more than 200,000 visitors annually. We caught up with Dr. Joanne Mitchell Martin, who co-founded the museum with her late husband Elmer.
What book or film changed your life?
My father used to read to me from the pages of Popular Mechanics. I relished the experience of sitting next to him and having him read to me. My father, with his fifth grade education, reading to me! It gave me an appreciation of reading and learning, indeed of education in general.
Who is your favorite Baltimorean, living or dead?
The late Dr. Thelma Banks Cox, founder, African American Heritage Society. Dr. Cox's vision helped launch African-American tourism in Baltimore.
What is the best advice you ever got?
My mother stressed the importance of making the right choices in life. Like many girls in Yulee, FL, I had a weekend job doing domestic work for a white family. My mother wanted me to understand clearly what my options might be if I made some bad choices.
What is the biggest mistake you've ever made?
Every experience, good or bad, has been a learning opportunity. Besides, I have been enormously blessed. Just having been married to an amazing man for 29 years (before his death) has helped me to maintain balance, perspective, and a positive outlook.
What's the bravest thing you've ever done?
Embarked, with my late husband Elmer, on a journey that led to the founding of The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum.
What is the greatest problem facing Baltimore today?
Lack of economic opportunity for most of its most vulnerable citizens, particularly the young.
When were you most tempted to leave Baltimore?
During the 1990's when I felt the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland lacked an appreciation for what the museum represents for the City and State. In 1985, through the efforts of Senator Clarence Blount, we received 200k in bond funds, and matching funds from the City. After that, we could get no funding. Our legislators from the 45th district along with the community leaders such as Dr. Marie Washington began to advocate for us. The voices of the people of the Oliver Community began to be heard and slowly but steadily, we began to gain funds for our expansion. Funding received from Mayors Schaefer, Schmoke, and O'Malley and Governors Glendening, Ehrlich, and O'Malley has allowed us to continue our important work.
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
Joanne Mitchell Martin. No one could do it better than I.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I reject the notion of feeling guilty about anything pleasurable.
If you could write Baltimore's motto, what would it be?
Baltimore, 'nough said!
So when did your Obama figure go up?
January 19, 2009, the day before the inauguration.
Is he your most popular figure?
Do people get emotional ever when they see him?
Yes; they often want to remain near his scene, take photographs, talk about what his election means to them, etc.
What kinds of crazy poses have you seen people do with the figures?
I worry about those people who threaten to take a figure home with them. Now what's up with that?!
Which wax figure is the best likeness?
I consider Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X to be two of our best figures.
Which is the worst?
My husband Elmer and I opted to do a young Martin Luther King Jr. (at about 26 years old). People don't recognize him at that age, and therefore his likeness gets criticized more than any others. Though we plan to do an older King image, I feel that it is important for people to realize the choices this man had to make at such a young age (choices – my mother's influence still at work!).
Which wax figure inspires you most and why?
The figures in the sharecropping scene. I grew up in the rural South, and although we were not sharecroppers, I connect personally to those images. Also, I see so much character in the woman's face.
What's your favorite reaction from a child who visited the Museum?
I particularly like it when teenagers are emotionally shaken by the Museum. I am not bothered in the least when they are actually moved to tears. I worry most when they can remain passive about the images they see and the struggles and sacrifices these images symbolize. To my delight, more than one young person has actually used the word "transformed" to describe their experience at the Museum.
Any particular moment stand out?
One day, a Japanese American student stood patiently waiting for me to finish my conversation with her African American classmates from a high school group visiting the Museum. She then walked over to me and commented on her classmates' statements that they had never heard of "lynching". She said, "I have never heard of it either, but I have something that is a little bit more personal that concerns me right now. I just found out about Japanese-American internment during WWII. Up to a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about it. And the fact that no one, not my parents or grandparents, not my teachers, not my textbooks, has ever talked to me about this has caused me a lot of anguish. "So," she said, "I hear the questions my African American classmates are asking you about an important part of their history, and I know the anguish I feel about not knowing this part of my past, and I ask myself "Who makes these decisions about what history gets told and not told?
In the very poignant, tear-filled moment that followed between us, I said to her, "From now on, you and I must never give up the right to be a part of the decision-making process.
Have you ever considered moving the Museum to a more tourist-friendly neighborhood?
On our taxi ride to Harlem, a few years ago, the cab driver asked my secretary Carol Jolley and me where we were from. "Baltimore," we replied enthusiastically, to which the cabbie remarked, "Well I'm just scared of y'all, I watch The Wire." Laughing, Ms. Jolley replied, "So are you threatening to throw us out of your cab because we're from Baltimore?" "No," the cab driver replied. "But I got my eyes on you." To which we all laughed. Perhaps "tourist-friendly" is in the eyes of the beholder. But to answer your question: We continue to be one of Baltimore's most popular, visible, and visited attractions, with more than 200,000 annual visitors. We have survived for 26 years, 21 of them in our fragile East Baltimore community. We are a major tourist destination for the city and the catalyst for African American tourism in the city. Our expansion is an important part of the revitalization that is destined to take place in this area of the city. My late husband Elmer often said, "Community development and cultural development go hand-in-hand."