By Bobbi Booker, Special to the NNPA from the Philadelphia Tribune –
The groundbreaking at the construction site of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. begins this week, notable since it is the last full week of Black History Month 2012.
One of the most talked about donations is the Harriet Tubman collection, a gift to NMAAHC from Charles L. Blockson — writer, historian and former board member of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He also is founder and curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of rare texts, slave narratives, art and other historically significant artifacts. The items came to him after the death of a Tubman relative.
“I inherited her belongings, and for eight months, I kept them with me in my bedroom, but they belong in this museum,” Blockson said of the Smithsonian’s African American museum. “Harriet Tubman is one of the most important women in the history of America, and her story needs to be heard by generations to come.”
Blockson’s family story is intertwined with Tubman’s. His research shows he is the descendant of Jacob Blockson, who escaped slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with Harriet Tubman and settled in St. Catherine, Canada. Tubman, born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, gained international acclaim as an Underground Railroad operator, Civil War spy and suffragist.
“Several of my ancestors escaped with Harriet Tubman, came to Philadelphia, met with (Black abolitionist) William Still and later went on to Canada,” explained Blockson.
Among the items shedding light on the private life of Tubman are family photographs, a hymn book published in 1876 and signed in pencil by Tubman, and a lace shawl (circa 1897) given to her by England’s Queen Victoria. Among the photographs of Tubman’s funeral March 11, 1913, is one showing her lying in state at A.M.E. Zion Church in Auburn, N.Y., and surrounded by seven members of the board of directors of the Harriet Tubman Home.
“She died in Auburn, N.Y., and when I came back, I stood over her grave under the evergreen tree and my emotional armor erupted,” recalled Blockson. “I started to cry, and asked, ‘How did she do it?’ Of all the people in our history, she sort of reigns supreme. Wherever I travel and talk, everyone seems to know of Harriet Tubman. She is paramount — her blood, her soul force — she is the Moses of our people, as we were taught, and here she delivered us to the promised land. To me, the groundbreaking for the NMAAHC is history, and Tubman is the proper one to be the leading soul force.”
The NMAAHC collection holds nearly 10,000 items ranging from fine art, historic photographs and manuscripts, to items documenting the slave trade, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights era.
“There is something both humbling and sacred found in the personal items of such an iconic person,” said Lonnie Bunch, director of NMAAHC. “It is an honor to be able to show the private side of a very public person, a woman whose very work for many years put her in service to countless others. This donation by Charles Blockson is a selfless gesture that ensures that her story will be enshrined forever within the Smithsonian Institution.”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was established by an Act of Congress in 2003, making it the 19th Smithsonian Institution museum. It is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, art, history and culture. Scheduled to open in 2015, the museum will be the first green building on the National Mall on a five-acre site adjacent to the Washington Monument.
President Barack Obama will deliver remarks at the NMAAHC groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday at 10 a.m. The event is by invitation only, but will be webcast at http://nmaahc.si.edu/Events/Groundbreaking. For more information, visit the museum at nmaahc.si.edu.