The museum also has a rare collection of photographs of famed writer James Baldwin
; Louis Armstrong’s Selmer trumpet; a replica of the iconic, 1,200-pound Parliament-Funkadelic stage prop known as the Mothership, and a trove of rare Harriet Tubman artifacts, including a silk and linen shawl given to the famous abolitionist by Queen Victoria.
Notably, the collection also features two items worn by an enslaved girl — a bonnet and dress, which were part of the Black Fashion Museum Collection that was donated to the Smithsonian five years ago.
“But it’s more of a Sunday dress that an enslaved woman would sew for her child,” Bunch said. The items’ provenance was documented by a previous owner and deemed authentic by museum curators.
Bunch’s obsession is with “day-to-day stuff” worn by slaves at work, he said: “The hat you would wear to keep the sun off your head, those old brogans made in Lynn, Mass., and sold south, things like that.
“The hardest thing with something like slavery is humanizing the story. It’s like the Holocaust; how do you think about 6 million people? But you can think of a family or individual if you humanize it. I want people to understand what slavery was really like for the people who lived it. It’s important that I find clothing to do that.”
A few articles of clothing assumed to have been worn by slaves are known to exist in the South. The Charleston Museum in South Carolina, for example, has two aprons and some jockey silks, said Jan Hiester, the museum’s curator of textiles. There’s also a piece of a brogan-style shoe that was discovered behind a kitchen wall, she said. “It could very well be a slave-worn work shoe, but I don’t have any documentation.”
Will the African American history museum’s treasure hunters ever come so close?
“Fat chance,” said Susan Eva O’Donovan, a University of Memphis history professor. Slaves, she said, wore clothing until it was in tatters, then they used the remaining cloth for patchwork quilts or sold it to the rag man. Nobody was likely to have saved it, she said.
“Lonnie Bunch is never going to find it, and if he does, it’s going to be an absolute miracle. And even then, how would he know it was a slave’s? It’s not going to have a name sewn into the neck. I guess he ought to dream. But yeah, right. Good luck. He would be more likely to find a part of a slave ship.”
As it turns out, Bunch wants one of those, too: His curators are searching from Africa to North America — and deep oceanic points in between — for at least a piece of a ship that was used in the transatlantic slave trade. They’re more optimistic about finding a “slaver” than they are about unearthing a slave’s work wardrobe.
According to Seth Rockman, a Brown University professor who is researching a book on the national economy of slavery, the fabric and ready-made clothes sold to slave owners in the 18th and 19th centuries were commonly called “Negro cloth.”
Most slave owners distributed either bolts of fabric or ready-made clothes twice each year, in the spring and fall, Rockman said. A typical provision was one of everything: frocks, pants, shirts and the like.
“It was basically disposable,” he said. “This stuff simply isn’t going to exist anymore.”
Still, Bunch refuses to give up, even if the realist in him acknowledges that he’s probably chasing a historical ghost.
“The odds are you probably can’t find much,” he said. “But then again, I never thought we’d find stuff from Harriet Tubman. Part of my job is to believe and help the staff believe and help the public believe. I believe we’ll find it.
“Just don’t ask me how.”
A temporary exhibit on slavery and Thomas Jefferson, curated by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, opens next Friday at the National Museum of American History.