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Collector donates Harriet Tubman artifacts to African American History museum

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010; C01

On a blue-covered table in a Capitol Hill hearing room, an ordinary hymnal was raised to the status of a historical object with the simple signature of its owner, Harriet Tubman Davis.

The book of gospel hymns was among an extraordinary trove of Tubman artifacts given Wednesday to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by esteemed collector and author Charles L. Blockson. Lonnie G. Bunch, the founding director of the museum, described the November meeting in Philadelphia when Blockson, who lives there, first showed the staff the 39 objects he is donating.

"Each object in this collection humbled us, excited us and moved us to tears. And then, Dr. Blockson uncovered Harriet Tubman's personal hymnal, and I think many of us lost it," Bunch said.

Among the items slated for the museum are a framed portrait, one of the few photographic images of Tubman known to exist; a beige silk and linen shawl given to Tubman by Queen Victoria; three postcards depicting Tubman's funeral in 1913; and her wooden-handled knife and fork.

For Bunch, a historian who has been collecting artifacts for the museum for the past five years (it is scheduled to open in 2015), the significance of the objects is undeniable. "I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because I was viewing material that I never expected to see, material that few knew existed," Bunch said.

Tubman's is one of only a small number of American names from the slavery era that has not been erased from history. Born on Maryland's Eastern Shore around 1820, she escaped from slavery and made at least 19 trips back into slave territory to lead hundreds of others to freedom. During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a spy and nurse for the Union Army and led a raid that freed more than 750 people. She was married twice and during her later years devoted herself to work with the church and education groups, becoming a spokeswoman for racial and women's struggles.

Blockson, a leading authority on the Underground Railroad, has collected slave narratives, rare texts and thousands of artifacts related to black American history. More than 20,000 of his items were given to Temple University, now the home of the Blockson Afro-American Collection. It is a major repository with hundreds of thousands of items.

"My ancestors escaped with Harriet Tubman," Blockson told the audience on Wednesday. The artifacts came to him from Mariline Wilkins, a great grand-niece of Tubman. "I was shocked," said Blockson, 76, when he was notified a few years back that he had been willed the materials. "Then I prayed and put them in a vault. Then I put them under my bed and her spirit was with me.

"I decided they belong here," Blockson said.

His congressman, Robert A. Brady, chairman of the House Administration Committee, hosted the ceremony and spoke of the importance of physical remnants of history. "With your contribution, more people will see what's happening," Brady said, noting that the museum is well on its way in terms of artifact collection.

The gift, Bunch said, gives a personal dimension to the story of slavery and freedom. "We have some enslavement objects, such as shackles," he said, "but this is one of the first personal stories."

The donation was made on the 97th anniversary of Tubman's death; in tribute, Blockson asked the audience to join hands and sing the song her friends hummed in her final hours. Then LaFleur Paysour, the communications director for the museum and a mezzo-soprano, led verses of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." For a few minutes, the hearing room had a sanctified spirit.

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