WASHINGTON – Tourists and history buffs will be able to see some rare, personal belongings of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman when a museum of African American history opens on the National Mall.
On Wednesday, historian Charles L. Blockson donated about 40 objects from Tubman’s life to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Once owned by the woman who led hundreds of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, the items range from a knife and spoon from her kitchen to a shawl given to her by Queen Victoria, as well as Tubman’s favorite hymnal.
They are the only relics from Tubman known to exist outside of her home in Auburn, N.Y., said museum director Lonnie Bunch.
“For me to be able to tell the story of the Underground Railroad through Harriet Tubman with actual artifacts is really a surprise I didn’t expect,” Bunch said. Seeing the artifacts the first time, he said, was “really one of the most moving moments in my career.”
Tubman was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After escaping in 1849, Tubman led countless slaves out of the South to freedom. The donation coincides with the anniversary of her death, March 10, 1913.
She will one day have a prominent place in the museum’s planned “Slavery and Freedom” gallery, curators said. The museum is slated to open near the Washington Monument in 2015.
In a donation ceremony on Capitol Hill, Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson said Tubman was a hero for her work in the Underground Railroad and as a spy for the Union Army.
“That was before women’s rights as well, but she had the courage to do it,” Johnson said.
The hymnal published in 1876 is perhaps the most special item for Bunch.
“Remember, when she used to go into the South to help people run away, she would sing certain songs, and that would be your clue that OK, it’s time to go,” he said.
Tubman’s signature penciled in cursive inside the book’s front cover adds even more meaning, he said.
“We tend to forget how few people could read,” Bunch said. “It must have been an amazing moment that almost encapsulated freedom when she could sign her name.”
The items were passed down through Tubman’s family to a grand niece named Mariline Wilkins. Wilkins left them to Blockson, who also has family ties to Tubman.
Blockson, 76, is a prominent collector of Black history. The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia started with a donation of 20,000 items in 1984 and has grown to more than 200,000 items including slave narratives, art and rare texts.
Of all the items Blockson has collected, though, the Tubman items are the pinnacle, he said.
“It touches the inner chambers of my soul,” he said.
Blockson said he prayed and kept the items under his bed for months before deciding to send them to the Smithsonian.
“On the mall here, people will be coming from all over the world. It belongs here,” he said. “This donation will lead others to donate; this is what I’m hoping.”