Baltimore’s National Great Blacks in Wax Museum received a $2 million gift from Congress that will enable the 40-year-old cultural linchpin to double in size by early 2026.
The $2,008,580 grant was presented to the museum in a March 31 ceremony by: U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the lead sponsor for the legislation, and U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen.
Mfume wrote in a Facebook post that he first met founders Elmer and Joanne Martin in the 1980s, when Great Blacks in Wax was located in a storefront. Five years later, the institution had grown large enough to be relocated to 1601-03 East North Ave., where it now occupies 12,500 square feet.
The museum presents the history of Black Americans through wax sculptures of such luminaries as the Maryland abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, civil rights leaders Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Barack Obama.
The Martins “had a great dream that they nurtured, embraced, and grew,” Mfume wrote in the Facebook post.
“This federal investment … represents our commitment to sustaining a cultural identity and institution here in Baltimore that will continue to educate our young people.”
Though the funding is not the largest grant in the museum’s history — Joanne Martin said it received $3 million from Baltimore City about two decades ago — she said it is game-changing.
“Oh my goodness,” she said. “For us, this grant is mammoth. It will allow us to grow the museum to 25,000 square feet.”
The money for the museum was part of the 2023 federal omnibus bill approved last November.
It is among the 15 local projects for which Mfume and the senators were able to secure funding, including $4 million for the Arena Players, the nation’s oldest continuously operating Black theater; $3 million to upgrade the facilities of the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training and $2.3 million for the East Baltimore Development, Inc., an 88-acre redevelopment north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The $2 million grant to Great Blacks in Wax will be used to renovate five buildings in the 1600 block of East North Avenue. Martin said the museum is looking for a space to relocate to during the approximately two-year construction period, which is expected to begin this fall.
“This money will allow us to preserve the front facades of these five buildings while doing a gut demolition behind the facades,” she said.
In addition, Great Blacks in Wax hopes to expand its collection of 150 wax figures by an additional 100, which Martin said will allow her to present episodes from Black history in greater context.
She hasn’t abandoned her dream of eventually expanding the museum down the entire block of East North Avenue — a project that carried a $76 million price tag when it was first proposed in 2014.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic descended three years ago and impacted fundraising campaigns, she said museum officials decided to tackle the expansion project in three phases.
When the museum reopens in late 2025 or early 2026, Martin said, that will signal the completion of the first phase.
Martin hopes to one day convert a former mansion at 1649 East North Ave. into a library and genealogical center. She envisions adding green space and landscaping. But for now, she’s thrilled that the long-delayed first phase finally is underway.
“This funding,” she said, “will help to ensure that the Great Blacks in Wax Museum continues to be a destination for visitors outside Maryland, and that we will continue to be a positive force in the community.”