Shana Bainbridge, a white fifth grade teacher at the predominantly Black Glenmont Middle School in Baltimore, was unsure how she could meaningfully engage her students when her school’s administration challenged her to come up with a project to celebrate Black History Month.
“Until we’re put to task to find out something new, we often don’t [learn] about our history,” Bainbridge said. “I thought that was really amazing how generations, not just my students, but the generations before them and the generations before them were able to share their stories and their impact on the world.”
Bainbridge was inspired by the Historical Photography Project, a grassroots archival project based out of the Black Arts District, to approach this challenge in a unique way. She wanted to encourage her students to recognize and celebrate everyday heroes around them by using the project’s curriculum.
Angela Carroll, the lead curator of the project, says the curriculum was intended to empower students.
“At the core of the curriculum is the idea that if you teach students how to ask questions by analyzing photos and asking questions of their elders or members of their community through oral histories, that they will be better informed and care about those histories and care about their community,” Carroll said. “That would catalyze more curiosity, more desire to learn, and also more connections and desire to see change in the community.”
The Historical Photography project is just one example of how Black storytellers of the oral, visual art, and performance art traditions are working together to preserve their history and educate youth on the legacy of artistic genius that they were born into as Baltimoreans, despite a lack of funding and statewide attacks against the very types of stories and archives that they keep.
In Maryland, book bans are a glaring example of efforts to suppress the narratives of Black people, particularly Black women and LGBTQ+ people, with books like “All Boys Aren’t Blue,”—written by a Black, queer author—being targeted by conservative parents’ groups in dozens of jurisdictions.
Uplifting and cataloging Black stories is crucial during this time when Black voices are being intentionally silenced and misconstrued, according to the Black Arts District’s Executive Director Lady Brion.
“[We are] Recognizing that we don’t have many archives dedicated to Black history and Black stories if we don’t do the work of capturing our own histories of our communities and creating community-based archives. And we recognize that so much of our history has been destroyed, intentionally buried, and we don’t really have the capacity ourselves to preserve it in the ways that these larger more mainstream institutions do. So this was our smaller way,” said Lady Brion.
The Black Arts District was established in Baltimore in 2019 and is the only state-designated arts and entertainment district in Maryland that is uniquely dedicated to Black arts and culture. Located on West Baltimore’s historic Pennsylvania Avenue, which has been a bustling hub for Black entertainment for generations, BAD aims to promote and celebrate Black history, resistance, and joy in a predominantly Black city that continues to be misrepresented in mainstream media.
“This wasn’t an outside entity coming to establish something in West Baltimore,” said Lady Brion. “This was Baltimore residents, and West Baltimoreans coming together to create something for themselves.”
BAD builds on a legacy of other local organizations that are also engaged in the work of preserving Black stories and oral history.
The Chesapeake Conjure Society, a collective that focuses on maintaining the traditions of the Black Upper South, is another group a part of Baltimore’s Black storytelling coalition. They teach about Black culture-keepers in their tradition—like Fredrick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, Agnes Kane Callum, or Gladys-Marie Fry—who maintained genealogical, scientific, political, or folk knowledge across the Chesapeake region.
“I think especially being in Maryland, specifically in a part of the Chesapeake, we don’t really hear about the spiritual aspects of enslaved peoples’ resistance,” said Victoria Williams, a member of the group. “It’s so rich, our history, and what we need to do is continue that, elevate them, and look to them as inspiration.”
Most of their work is about gathering together and maintaining practices that have been repressed or hidden since Black people’s arrival to this region in the early 1600s.
“One way we keep tradition is just meet to actually be in community together, and we continue traditions like with All Saints Day,” Williams said. “We gather around a Black cemetery, and we clean up the cemetery because the history of Black cemeteries is just tragic. Many of our ancestors are resting in places that have been basically neglected.”
While the Chesapeake Conjure Society mainly focuses on history and folklore, the National Association of Black Storytellers and its local affiliate, the Griots’ Circle of Maryland, specifically use the practice of oral storytelling and intergenerational collaboration to cultivate creativity and preserve folktales.
“This organization continues and thrives because the people who are members understand the importance of having a voice: a Black voice, a unique voice, an authentic voice,” said Janice Curtis Greene, the official griot of Maryland. “We use the term Black-storytelling, all one word. It is a noun.”
Curtis Greene is also a mentor with another initiative: the Growing Griots Literacy Learning program.
“[The kids] have no awareness of these things, but they hear these things from their elders,” Curtis Greene said. “It just opened their minds to how much the people have gone through and how much you have to keep working not to slip back. So the Growing Griots Literacy Learning program is more important now than ever, to make sure that young people know some correct history. They can prepare to be history makers of the future.”
“It’s important, helping a community understand that even though they may currently live in blight, that their community was not always blighted. So that they can see evidence, material, culture, that stands as evidence to say, ‘You come from a renaissance.’”
The classroom curriculum for the Growing Griots Literacy Learning program is accompanied by an online archive that houses submissions from students and other community members who have shared their own Baltimorean history.
Despite the impact of these projects, they have not yet been institutionalized in Baltimore. Consistent funding has not been provided to support the expansion of these types of archives, meaning that ultimately they are more like a time capsule from the time of a project’s launch rather than an ongoing archive of Black culture. At the end of August, Carroll’s short-term contract ended at the Black Arts District, leaving the Historical Photography Project without a lead curator or future funding.
All funding for the project has been used and it is unlikely to continue, Caroll said.
“I think [the HPP] will have intergenerational impact and will help Black Baltimoreans understand that they have an incredible history of Black creative genius right here in their city, and it’s accessible,” Carroll said. “They just have to dig through their own family archives, look at their own photographs, and have real conversations with members in their community.”