Museum's Latest Treasure: Harriet Tubman's Hymnal

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Courtesy Lonnie Bunch

Harriet Tubman's signed hymnal.

The artifacts are stacking up as museum director Lonnie Bunch gathers material for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The first national museum to celebrate the legacy of black Americans is scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015.

On this visit to his growing collection, Bunch pulls out a bill of sale and shows it to NPR's Guy Raz.

It's the original receipt for a 16-year-old Negro girl named Polly, who was sold for $600 as a slave. "What really hits me about this document is it starkly reminds us that these people were considered property," Bunch says. "Suddenly you realize that this paper really is a way into the story of this woman's life."

There's not much more of her story likely to be found, Bunch adds. "More than likely, she is lost." Part of his job is to create the opportunity to hear what little of her story remains. "By having a document like this, maybe she won't be lost; she'll always be remembered."

Harriet Tubman's Signature Songs

Then, Bunch brings out a yellowed hymn book. On the inside cover, there's the signature of none other than Harriet Tubman, who led slaves on harrowing journeys to their freedom.

"This is one of the great treasures of the museum," he says.

One of the ways Tubman signaled slaves was by singing hymns. "So she'd sing 'Steal Away to Jesus' or 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' and you would know it's time to go. And so to be able to have a hymnal that has those songs in it that was hers is just pretty amazing."

The hymnal came to the museum by way of one of Tubman's last living descendants, who gave it to collector Charles L. Blockson. Bunch and his team traveled to Philadelphia to get it from Blockson. "When he pulled this out," Bunch recalls, "the room went silent and people got ready to cry."

According to Blockson, Tubman didn't learn to write until later in her life, and the signature inside the hymnal is one of her early attempts at signing her name. When he said that, Bunch says, "Well, everybody lost it."

Instructions For Segregation

Another museum piece once belonged to the Lallie Kemp Charity Hospital in Independence, La. It's a carefully hand-lettered sign that tells the days colored residents could come in for medical services and when whites could receive service.

"What's so interesting to me is this sign -- this hospital, only opened in 1954," Bunch says. "At the time of Brown v. Board of Education supposedly ending segregation."

"It's amazing to see the detail -- the depth people had to go to -- to maintain segregation."

A Princely Crown

Another piece that Bunch loves belonged to a young fighter by the name of Cassius Clay. It's an Everlast head protector from the 5th Street Gym in Miami, where Clay trained for his first fight with Sonny Liston.

"As soon as he defeated Sonny Liston, he announced that he became a member of the Nation of Islam, became Muhammad Ali, and this headgear is what Ali wore as he trained for that unbelievably important moment against Sonny Liston," Bunch says.

This piece may not wind up in the sports section of the museum, however. "Ali is more than sport," Bunch says. "For Muhammad Ali, this has to be a way to get to the political Ali, get to understanding all the turmoil of the 1960s that really plays out in the life of Ali." The conflict surrounding Ali's life reflects experiences blacks have faced throughout American history.

"Part of our obligation is to tell stories that are unvarnished truth," Bunch says. "Tell stories that are going to be complicated and difficult, and tell stories that are going to be controversial. That's our job."

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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