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Gabriella Souza at The Walters Art Museum
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Untold stories of enslaved and paid laborers revealed at 1 West Mount Vernon Place
New Walters research brings Sybby Grant letter to light
1 West Mount Vernon Place, the Walters Art Museum’s awe-inspiring 19th-century mansion, opens with a free community celebration on Saturday, June 16, after a multi-year transformation. Located in the heart of Mount Vernon, 1 West offers visitors exciting new ways to experience the Walters’ renowned collection in one of Baltimore’s most distinctive and spectacular buildings.
“With the reopening of 1 West Mount Vernon Place, we are thrilled to showcase the Walters in new ways,” says Julia Marciari-Alexander, Andrea B. and John H. Laporte Director. “This project represents the next step in the museum’s evolution as a place where we can collaborate with the public to create exceptional experiences that are accessible to a wide range of audiences.”
1 West served as a home during the 19th and 20th centuries, with staff maintaining and running the house. The first residents of 1 West, the Thomas family, built the house and took residence in 1851. They relied on enslaved and paid servants who cleaned and cooked, managed horses and carriages, and cared for children.
The discovery of the identity of one of those enslaved servants—Sybby Grant, the Thomases’ cook—changed how the Walters Art Museum tells the story of 1 West. “Learning about Sybby Grant and a letter that she wrote opened up a new direction for the stories that we tell about the people associated with the house, and how we tell them,” says Eleanor Hughes, Deputy Director for Art & Program, and curator of the 1 West project. “Their stories resonated strongly with broader issues and themes and we began to see the story of the house as a micro-history of Baltimore and the nation from 1850 through today.”
The Walters first became aware of Grant in 2015, after students at the Baltimore School for the Arts left a poster on the front of 1 West that called attention to Grant’s presence in the house and mentioned a letter that she had written. Hughes located the letter, which had been purchased by a Philadelphia book dealer, and the Walters soon thereafter acquired it. Grant wrote the letter to Dr. Thomas in 1861, during the Civil War, when he was imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor for his secessionist activities. The letter will be displayed in the home’s dining room, along with art by contemporary ceramicist Roberto Lugo, who was inspired by Grant’s letter.
The Walters assembled a committee of local experts—including historians of art, architecture, and American history from institutions including the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Morgan State University, and the Maryland Institute College of Art, as well as independent researchers—to advise on the project.
Research revealed more about the Thomas family’s household workers, both enslaved and paid, but much remains to be learned about the lives of these and other individuals, including Grant. She worked for the Thomas family for over 20 years, but the Walters has so far been unable to find any record of her after Maryland ended slavery in 1864. The museum is committed to continuing the research on Sybby Grant and the other individuals whose stories have been missing from the narratives of Baltimore and the Walters.
“These are the stories of the people of Baltimore and the nation,” says Hughes, “that I hope will be of interest not just to the people who know and visit the Walters, but to those who may not feel that their histories are represented in museums.”
On June 5, members of the media are invited to preview 1 West Mount Vernon Place and tour the exhibitions and installations inside. And on June 16, the Walters celebrates the opening of 1 West Mount Vernon Place with a free block party on Mount Vernon Square featuring an array of special programs, an opening ceremony, food trucks, art making, and performances for visitors of all ages.
About the Walters Art Museum
The Walters Art Museum is a cultural hub in the heart of Baltimore, located in the city’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. The museum’s collection spans more than seven millennia, from 5,000 BCE to the 21st century, and encompasses 36,000 objects from around the world. Walking through the museum’s historic buildings, visitors encounter a stunning panorama of thousands of years of art, from romantic 19th-century images of French gardens to mesmerizing Ethiopian icons, richly illuminated Qur’ans and Gospel books, ancient roman sarcophagi, and serene images of the Buddha. Since its founding, the Walters’ mission has been to bring art and people together to create a place where people of every background can be touched by art. As part of this commitment, admission to the museum and special exhibitions is always free.