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Black Heritage Museum hosts open house

February 28, 2009|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI

HAGERSTOWN -- Jay Kelsh moved gingerly about the dank, dimly lighted cellar, careful not to bump any of the artifacts stacked, piled and hung throughout its cinder-block rooms.

Reaching toward a crowded shelf for a piece of John Bell pottery, Kelsh stepped forward and tipped over a small sheet of glass. It shattered to pieces on the concrete floor.

The moment embodied the plight of the Doleman Black Heritage Museum -- countless noteworthy historical items in an agonizingly unqualified showcase.

"We gotta stop the deterioration of these artifacts," Kelsh said. "I mean, this is a damp basement."

The museum is at 540 N. Locust St. in the former home of Kelsh's aunt and uncle, Marguerite and Charles Doleman, both of whom are deceased. Throughout her life, Marguerite amassed a collection of artifacts representing the African-American experience in the Washington County area. She also spoke to school students about black history. In 1974, the Dolemans opened their home as a museum and began offering tours to visitors.

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"Marguerite started collecting and telling the stories, and it just snowballed," Kelsh said.

Today, their son, Sonny Charles Doleman, resides in the home. For the past 10 years, the museum has been open for private showings only. Throughout the month of February, the museum began offering public tours again on Saturdays. About 50 people went to the museum to view items including pre-Civil War era to late-20th century artwork, documents and utilitarian pieces.

Kelsh, 45, of Hagerstown, said renewed enthusiasm for the museum sparked its open house.

In 2007, the museum formed a board of directors and received nonprofit status. The same year, it received a $15,000 grant from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority along with a matching grant from the City of Hagerstown. The grant is being used to fund an assessment of the significance and condition of the Doleman collection.

Historian Mary Beth Corrigan began the assessment in January. With five rooms chock-full of artifacts, the review is expected to take about nine months.

"Someone in the family said they thought there were 70,000 pieces," Kelsh said. "I've been around the collection long enough to think there are more than that."

The board of directors ultimately hopes to move the collection from its cramped home to a building more suitable for exhibition. Kelsh said the Maryland General Assembly is to consider a $100,000 bond bill request for the acquisition of a permanent location for the Doleman collection.

Howard and Carol Mendelsohn of Hagerstown attended the open house Saturday. Carol said she had fond memories of taking her children to the museum for a Scouting project years ago.

"I am anxious to see what the future of this will be," Carol said. "You can see that spark in the distance, that all of this will be preserved."

Howard Mendelsohn said he was impressed by the breadth of the collection.

"This is not a few sparse artifacts. This is a whole history of blacks in Hagerstown," he said. "Hopefully the museum will be able to get a larger facility where more people will have availability to it."

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