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Work To Start On African American Museum


Here in Washington, a new branch of the Smithsonian will highlight the African-American experience. It will be called the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Tomorrow, President Obama speaks at the groundbreaking on the National Mall - that great stretch of open space that is lined with museums for much of its length.

This newest museum is scheduled to open in 2015, and NPR's Allison Keyes has a preview.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Some of the things that you'll see here will take your breath away. One of them is a shawl that belonged to Harriet Tubman.

LONNIE BUNCH: There's an amazing picture I had seen as a historian, of Harriet Tubman, two days before she died, wrapped in that shawl.

KEYES: Museum director Lonnie Bunch explains that the shawl was a gift to Tubman from Queen Victoria. The queen had heard about the escaped slave who freed so many other African-Americans that she earned the nickname Moses. The museum also has Tubman's hymn book.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. Swing low...

BUNCH: She kept this hymnal for 50 years, which carried all those songs that she would use as a way to alert enslaved Africans that this might be a moment to flee.

CHARLES BLOCKSON: All her friends, when she died March 10, 1913, they gathered around the bed and sang her favorite spirituals.

KEYES: Historian Charles Blockson donated 39 items that belonged to Harriet Tubman. He says Tubman's great-great niece, Meriline Wilkins, left them to him in her will. Their families, he says, have a connection.

BLOCKSON: Several of my relatives from the Eastern Shore of Delaware and Maryland escaped with Harriet Tubman.

KEYES: The collection includes artifacts, ranging from Tubman's homemade knife, fork and spoon, to photos from her funeral. But Blockson says the hymnal of this spiritual woman touched him.

BLOCKSON: They said that she was illiterate, but she attempted to write her name in the book.


SAM COOKE: (Singing) It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know, a change gonna come.

KEYES: The museum's collection includes shards of brightly colored glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four little African-American girls were killed in a Klan bombing. But the items the museum has been collecting since 2005 also include Funkmaster George Clinton's Mothership, Louis Armstrong's trumpet, a Jim Crow railroad car, and a Tuskegee Airmen biplane from World War II.

PHYLICIA RASHAD: That's the greatness of this museum.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad is emcee for the groundbreaking tomorrow, and says it's important to know that the sum of the history of African-Americans in America is not totally encompassed by bondage and segregation.

RASHAD: African-American people have contributed much to American culture: in medicine, in education, in art, in music, in dance. Name someplace where we have not been.

FRAYER: The museum's collections, exhibitions and programming are being designed to showcase the richness of the African-American experience. There will be theaters where films and documentaries are screened, and also live interviews with scholars and history makers. The museum's director, Lonnie Bunch, almost every moment of major transformation in this nation has been shaped by issues of race. He argues that the African American experience is central to the American experience – so the stories this museum will tell, aren't just for black people.

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water..


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Keyes
Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.