Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.
- Booker T. Washington

Harriet Tubman Collection Unveiled by NMAAHC

Photo: A photograph from the 1880s of Harriet Tubman (left) with some she helped to escape from slavery, along with members of their families.

Portrait photo in frameby Tarby Photo, Auburn, NY, n.d.
Photo: Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has acquired a collection of artifacts documenting the life and work of abolitionist Harriet Tubman.  Tubman, born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, gained international acclaim as an Underground Railroad operator, Civil War spy and suffragist.  Items from the Tubman collection were unveiled at a ceremony on Capitol Hill coinciding with the anniversary of Tubman’s death March 10, 1913.

The collection includes photographs, correspondence, photo-post cards, manuscripts of speeches, souvenir programs from dedication services, household items and clothing accessories.

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.

“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.”

Hymn book.
Gospel Hymns No. 2, by P.P. Bliss and Ira D. Sankey (1876).
Harriet Tubman’s personal book of hymns includes her name,
inscribed by her own hand, on the inside front cover.
Photo: Michael Barnes, Smithsonian Institution.

The Harriet Tubman collection is 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.”

The Tubman collection, along with a growing number of artifacts, portraits, recordings and other historically significant items, underscores the vital role of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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.

To view more images from the Harriet Tubman collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, please use this link.

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