Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
One of the most exciting museum projects in America is taking place right here in Washington, D.C. In 2015, right under the shadow of the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian's National Museum for African-American History and Culture will open its doors. It'll be the newest museum on the National Mall.
Now, every few weeks on this program, we have been checking in with the team that's scouring the country and the world for the artifacts that'll tell the story of how Africans became Americans. I sat down with the museum's director, Lonnie Bunch, a few days ago to see some of the latest things he's collected and he started by showing me a handwritten bill of sale; the price was $600 and the product? A human being, a slave.
Dr. LONNIE BUNCH (Director, Smithsonian National Museum for African-American History and Culture): This is a document that is selling a young 16-year-old African-American woman named Polly. And one owner is simply selling her to another owner, and this is the legal document that verifies the sale.
So on the one hand, you see a lot of these around the country, because anything that's a legal document we've kind of preserved. On the other hand, you think, what does this tell us about what it says here: A young Negro girl of 16 named Polly, yellow in complexion, and suddenly you realize that this paper really is a way into the story of this woman's life, trying to imagine what it was like to be sold.
RAZ: Is there a way to get a sense of what would have happened to her? Where she ended up?
Dr. BUNCH: There's probably a way to do a little more research. We might get lucky to be able to trace who bought her. But more than likely, she is lost. So part of our job is to create in the museum an opportunity for you to know what the stories of comparable people were like. And by sort of having a document like this, maybe she won't be lost. She'll always be remembered.
RAZ: It's amazing to see that the value of a human being was all laid out on a piece of paper.
Dr. BUNCH: I think the other side of that is to talk about how people responded to slavery. And this is one of - okay, one of the great treasures of the museum. What you have here is a hymnal. But this is a hymnal that was owned by Harriet Tubman. And Harriet Tubman, the great abolitionist, the great woman who basically said, I will go back into the South time and time again to bring people free. And one of the ways she alerted the 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.
RAZ: How did you come across this?
Dr. BUNCH: There's a man named Charles Blockson, an amazing collector, who basically was called by one of the last living descendants of Harriet Tubman, and when she died she left this to him. And I have to be honest. He called me and said, come up to Philadelphia to see this work on Harriet Tubman. And I thought, there's not much on Harriet Tubman. And he would reach into a box and he ultimately pulled out 39 objects.
He pulled out a knife and fork that she used; he pulled out pictures of hers of her funeral. And then when he pulled this out, the room went silent and people got ready to cry. And then when he said Harriet Tubman didn't learn to write until later in her life and here is one of the early attempts of her signing her name in this hymnal, well, everybody lost it.
RAZ: And it's amazing every time we do this, Lonnie, to have them right in front of us, right here.
Dr. BUNCH: And one of the things is - I have to be honest - as the director, you know, we handle this in the right way, but there are times I want to just take it and rub it, you know, and I just want to feel Harriet Tubman's spirit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: All right. What else do we have here in the collection?
Dr. BUNCH: Here is a sign from Independence, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans, from the Lallie Kemp Charity Hospital. And it's a sign that clearly delineates what days colored residents could come in for medical services and what days and hours white residents. What's so interesting to me is this sign, this hospital, only opened in 1954, at the time of Brown v. Board of Education supposedly ending segregation.
Dr. BUNCH: But I think it's so amazing that it's, first of all, you know, it's a beautiful sign. A handwritten sign...
Dr. BUNCH: ...that says on Monday, you know, the coloreds can come in for their OBGYN, giving birth to their babies but on Tuesday you couldn't.
Dr, BUNCH: Tuesday was the white day for pediatric treatment and for just regular medical services. So it's amazing to see the detail, the depth people had to go to to maintain segregation.
Dr. BUNCH: And then, of course, we come to one of my favorites.
Dr. BUNCH: The last time we talked, you and Michael Jackson's fedora.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. BUNCH: You know, for me, it is this piece.
RAZ: And I know what's coming out and I can't believe it's going to be right here on this table in this conference room and it's real.
Dr. BUNCH: It is real.
RAZ: And it is?
Dr. BUNCH: This is a headgear, Everlast headgear worn by boxers. This particular piece was worn by young Cassius Clay, and this is from 5th Street Gym where, sort of Angelo Dundee, who was the manager of young Cassius Clay, brought him to train 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.
RAZ: I realize it's still early on, there's still a few more years before the building is actually finished. But how would a piece like this work in the museum? I mean, this could be, it could be in a political display, it could be in a sports section. How would you display it?
Dr. BUNCH: I would never display this simply as a piece of sport, because Ali is more than sport. 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. So, part of our obligation is to tell stories that are unvarnished truth, tell stories that are going to be complicated and difficult and tell stories that are going to be controversial. That's our job.
RAZ: Well, Lonnie Bunch, thanks so much for showing us some new pieces added to the collection.
Dr. BUNCH: Thank you. Always glad to do it.
RAZ: That's Lonnie Bunch. He is the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. It's set to open here in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall in 2015. Until then, you can see the artifacts Lonnie showed me at NPR.org.