Maryland civil rights exhibit narrated by those who lived it

By P. Ryan Anthony, Dorchester Banner
Posted 7/27/22

According to Allison Tolman, vice president of Collections and Interpretation at the Maryland Center for History and Culture in Baltimore, a new exhibit usually takes a year to prepare. Development …

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Maryland civil rights exhibit narrated by those who lived it

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According to Allison Tolman, vice president of Collections and Interpretation at the Maryland Center for History and Culture in Baltimore, a new exhibit usually takes a year to prepare. Development of just the content for “Passion and Purpose: Voices of Maryland’s Civil Rights Activists,” which includes a section on Cambridge, required two years.

But MCHC wanted to get it right, because teachers and students all over the state were counting on them.

Maryland has long been at the forefront of the struggle for Black freedom and equality, and MCHC wanted to make a presentation of that fact. In 2019, the center initiated an ambitious plan for a 4,000-square-foot exhibition on Maryland’s civil rights history.

They brought in 13 experts — scholars, professors, authors, historians, artists, community and religious leaders, and researchers — to form a curatorial panel that would advise and guide the eight staff members tasked with building the content and shaping the installation for “Passion and Purpose.”

Originally, the panel wished to cover everything from the Civil War to the present. But a tighter focus was required. About six months to a year into development, the team decided to base the exhibit solely on something that had been intended to be just part of the source material: two collections of recorded interviews with people who experienced the struggle firsthand between the 1930s and 1960s, including those in the Cambridge Movement.

Thus, the vision for the project became the story of the activists who lived civil rights history and the connection of their activism to the movement today.

“All of the stories that are in this exhibition are only ones where we have the interpretation through the voice of somebody or multiple people who were there,” explained Tolman.

One could say preparation for “Passion and Purpose” began way back in 1969, when the staff of MCHC (then the Maryland Historical Society) started conducting interviews about civil rights for their oral history collection.

That series recorded the stories of people involved in the movement during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The next significant collection was made in 2006 and 2007, when students from Doris M. Johnson High School in Baltimore worked on projects where they studied documents about historical moments and then interviewed individuals personally connected to those moments, in order to learn what was missing from the documents.

These oral histories carried the timeline through the civil rights activities of the 1960s.

“So, with Cambridge, for example,” said Tolman, “somebody wrote about the Cambridge Movement as part of a high school project, and then they were like, ‘OK, I’m using all these historical documents, and this is what happened in Cambridge.’ And then they said, ‘Now go talk to Gloria Richardson.’ And, so, they went and talked to Gloria Richardson and (her daughter) Donna Orange, and they told them what it was really like. And so that changed what this person wrote about the movement, because not everything is written in the historical documents.”

Of course, the MCHC staff couldn’t just take the interviewees strictly at their word, because everyone has their own interpretation of events and not everyone’s memory is as clear or precise as one would want.

It was necessary to critically analyze the 50 or 60 oral histories that were to be used for the exhibit, so there could be historical context for them.

As Tolman explained, “Our curatorial panel, they were a really wonderful resource because, when we wrote the script and gave it to them, they’d be like, ‘This is what this person thinks, but this is not what happened.’”

When starting to create the narrative for the Cambridge section of the exhibition, Tolman and her team examined how Cambridge became an iconic moment in civil rights history, a representation of when there was a schism in the nonviolent movement on a national level.

“You have people who are (committed to) Gandhian nonviolence,” said Tolman, “and then you have people who think nonviolence is a tactic, one you can use but isn’t necessarily the only thing you have in your toolkit. That happens in the nation, but there’s, like, this case study in Cambridge because it reflects it so dramatically, and it becomes a national story.”

Tolman wanted to learn what led to that moment, “because nothing happens just in a silo.”

What she learned was that, in the early 1960s, the Civic Interest Group conducted a protest in Crisfield, and when they were arrested for trespassing, they were bailed out of jail by Frederick St. Clair, a member of the Cambridge St. Clair family.

He told them how deeply segregated his city was, and CIG decided to recruit local teens to protest in Cambridge. During a 1962 protest at the Dorset Theatre, the students were roughed up by police and arrested.

One of those children was Donna Richardson, whose mother Gloria soon found herself in the thick of the movement. A great deal of violence followed, and Cambridge became national news.

Tolman feels that Cambridge contributed a great deal to the civil rights movement as a whole because “it showed how imperiled the situation was.” People at the time thought of race problems as being contained in the Deep South, but these events were happening on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, less than two hours from Washington, D.C. “So, it brought to light that this wasn’t just a Deep South issue, that this was an issue in America.”

The oral history recordings can be listened to while touring the “Passion and Purpose” exhibition, admiring the displays created by graphic designer Sally Comport of Art at Large and examining the many fascinating artifacts of the times.

There is also a virtual version of the exhibit so people can access the interviews and source materials from anywhere. But Tolman said there are definite advantages to visiting the actual exhibition at MCHC.

“You get to see the objects on-site. The space was very intentionally designed to give you a feeling, an emotion as you’re walking through the space. I think it’s well done in the way it does that.”

See “Passion and Purpose: Voices of Maryland’s Civil Rights Activists” at the Maryland Center for History and Culture Wednesday through Saturday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. or Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Learn more at mdhistory.org.