Sorry, You Can’t Go to This Amazing Secret Museum in Bethesda

The collection of African-American pop-culture artifacts could end up on public display at some point, though.
Sorry, You Can’t Go to This Amazing Secret Museum in Bethesda
Al-Tony Gilmore. Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

The 82-year-old poster looks pristine, as if it’s just been peeled off a wall. Advertising a performance of “America’s greatest colored spectacle,” its marquee photograph is of a smiling preteen, dapper in a suit and hat, named “Little Sammy Davis.”

“You’ll never see another one like it,” says historian and author Al-Tony Gilmore, who found this eye-catching sign in an Ohio junk shop decades ago. He immediately recognized its significance—the origin story of a show-business legend told in a single object.

Gilmore’s spacious Bethesda home, filled with one-of-a-kind treasures like this, doubles as an invitation-only museum dedicated to African-American cultural history—the rarest of the rare. Featuring more than 7,000 items, including unusual objects, vintage movie posters, and important correspondence from black politicians and public figures, the collection represents a lifetime of scouring and curating.

The collection is significant enough that Gilmore has now started thinking about what will happen to it when he’s gone. “I’m wrestling with that question,” he says with a sigh. “I want it to be seen and displayed, not just archived somewhere.”

This article appears in the March 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

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