The last time Harriet Tubman heard the African American spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," was in the final hours of her life, as friends and family gathered around her and sang the song to "carry her home."
Tubman (1822- 1913), an African American abolitionist and humanitarian who guided dozens of slaves out of the southern states to freedom in the north, was also an Union spy during the Civil War.
Yesterday, on what would have been her 188th birthday, a crowd gathered in a congressional hearing room, holding hands as they sang through the verses. But this time, the song celebrated a rare gift: the donation of 39 of Tubman's belongings to the the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Charles L. Blockson, a Philadelphia historian who donated the items to the museum, has spent much of his life collecting artifacts and texts that represent African American history, including a collection of 20,000 items at Temple University under his name . But when he inherited Tubman's belongings, which were willed to him by a grand-niece of Tubman's who died, he was "in awe."
"I prayed," he said, "I kept it under my bed for eight months."
But he wanted to honor Tubman in a larger way, so he revealed the items to Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), chair of the Committee on House Administration and the congressman for Blockson's district, and later decided to donate the items.
"It's important that Harriet Tubman is honored," said Blockson, whose family escaped slavery with Tubman's help. "And now, Harriet Tubman's spirit is here."
Some of the items were laid out on table in the hearing room yesterday, including a large seven-by-ten-inch photograph of Tubman. The other items ranged from a fork and knife, believed to come from Tubman's home, and a silk shawl, given to Tubman by England's Queen Victoria as a gift around 1897, during the queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration. The delicate silk and lace shawl is still in near-perfect condition, free of any rips or visible repairs.
Lonnie Bunch, the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, says the museum has collected about 10,000 artifacts. It is scheduled to open in 2015, but Bunch said this donation was particularly special because there are very few artifacts or materials in existence today that can be traced to Tubman.
"I didn't even know these things existed," he said. "So I think that's what special about it—it allows us to be the place where we can really interpret Harriet Tubman, which no one else can really do."
Bunch said the museum will likely use the items in an exhibit on slavery and freedom.
"These items will help us talk about the power of freedom;the lure of freedom;that no matter how imbonded you were, you wanted to be free," he said. "Harriet Tubman really risked life and limb to do just that."