In the early 1980s, Joanne Martin and her husband Elmer Martin had just launched the nation’s only wax museum dedicated to the preservation of African American history.
It was hard work, especially since the couple were both full-time university professors, but whenever they could, they would take their figures out into the community – to schools, or churches or malls. Then, in the evenings, they would lay the figures to rest in their two-bedroom apartment.
“If you looked into the guest bedroom of our two bedroom apartment, you might have seen Mary McLeod Bethune’s head on the dresser and Fredrick Douglass’s torso on the bed,” said Joanne Martin before a gathered crowd in Port St. Joe Sunday. “That was our very beginning.”
Now, the National Great Blacks in Wax museum has more than 150 wax figures and has a permanent location in Baltimore’s Saratoga Street, receiving more than 300,000 visitors a year. But Martin still travels with the wax figures whenever she can.
On Feb. 13 and 14, six of those wax figures stood in the Corrine Costin Gibson Memorial Library, with placards depicting their names and accomplishments, and the library, which is normally closed on Sundays, was buzzing with discussion and activity.
Amy Rogers, who organized the exhibit, said that booking the wax figures in Gulf County has been a years-long process. For a decade, Rogers and local civil rights activist Maxine Gant have been taking Gulf County children on field trips to nearby showings of the exhibit in Panama City or Apalachicola.
“But now we are so proud that we’ve got it right here in Gulf County, in Port St. Joe,” she said on Sunday.
The exhibit opened with a ceremony celebrating National Black History Month, which this year focuses on addressing disparities in healthcare and wellness. The Black History Month proclamations for Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka were read aloud to the crowd by Wewahithcka’s Gary Williams and Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett.
“It’s important that we continue to share our history and educate our people, young people especially, and remind us old people about our history” Buzzett said in a speech. “We need to continue to teach it and pass it down. If we don’t, somebody will make it up for us.”
“One cannot tell the story of America without preserving and reflecting on the places where African Americans have made history.”
Martin said that one of her original goals when starting the museum was to make Black history more attainable and tangible.
“We were looking for a way that we could do something that would help Black people see their place in history,” she said. “And Black children, who aren’t going to take us back to that place where they see their color as something to be ashamed of, we wanted them to understand all of the ways that we have participated in shaping this country and this world.”
On Tuesday, the exhibit’s final day in town, the figures will be set up at the Joe Center for the Arts on Reid Avenue, where students from Gulf County Schools will take a field trip to view the statues and listen to Martin speak.
The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum will be holding an exhibit in Bay County on Feb. 17, 18 and 19 at the Panama City City Hall.