Maryland will feature prominently in Smithsonian's latest museum

When the country's largest museum devoted to African-American history and culture opens in Washington, Maryland people and places will get a healthy share of the limelight.

A two-story log house built by freed slaves from Montgomery County, dubbed the Freedom House, is one of the largest single objects planned for display inside the $500 million museum, for which ground was broken Wednesday.


Other Maryland-related objects include a silk shawl given to abolitionist Harriet Tubman by Britain's Queen Victoria, a hymn book used by Tubman and a first edition of abolitionist Frederick Douglass' autobiography.

These are among 20,000 objects collected by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open on the National Mall in 2015 as the 19th Smithsonian Institution museum.


Local experts on African-American history say it's appropriate that Maryland will be featured prominently, since many key figures come from the state.

"Maryland has a rich African-American history," said Randall Vega, director of cultural affairs for Baltimore's Office of Promotion & the Arts. "It's wonderful that some of the riches from Maryland are now going to be shared with the nation and the world."

As part of the Smithsonian's Black History Month programming, President Barack Obama spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday.

"It was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom," Obama said. "It was here that the pillars of democracy were built, often by black hands."

Planned for a 5-acre site next to the Washington Monument, it is the first national museum devoted solely to documenting African-American life, art, history and culture.

The Smithsonian has been collecting artifacts from around the country to tell stories about African-Americans, and Maryland has been a valuable resource, according to Paul Gardullo, one of the museum's curators.

Gardullo said the Smithsonian is not seeking to duplicate the collections of regional museums such as the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore or the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, but curators felt it was important to include objects with ties to Maryland because the state is nearby and many of its visitors are likely to come from Maryland.

When it opened in 2005, Baltimore's $34 million Lewis museum was the largest African-American museum on the East Coast and the second-largest in the country, after one in Detroit.


A. Skipp Sanders, executive director of the Lewis museum, said he isn't worried about having another African-American museum so close because he believes many of its visitors may want to see what Maryland has. "It could motivate people to come from Washington to get another perspective," he said.

Gardullo said the log structure from Montgomery County, also known as the Jones-Hall-Sims House, will be one of the largest single objects in the museum, along with a full-size railroad car and an airplane flown by African-American pilots and crew members known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

He said the house dates from 1874 and came from an area near Poolesville that was the site of a plantation before the Civil War and later supported a community of freed slaves that was known as Jonesville.

The house was built by two brothers, Richard and Erasmus Jones, who operated a farm on the land after the Civil War. The museum acquired it in 2009 from its last owner, Brad Rhoderick, who wanted to build something else on the property but "was interested in seeing if history could be preserved," Gardullo said.

Gardullo said the house will be used to help show how African-Americans lived and stayed connected to the land during the post-Civil War era known.

Unlike structures used as slave quarters, the Freedom House "stands as a tangible symbol of the promise of newly freed people in the aftermath of the Civil War," he said. "A lot of people don't understand what Reconstruction was all about. It's hard to grasp, but when you see a house that is two stories high, this is about the very nature of rising up and moving up."


Besides the shawl and hymn book, the objects related to Tubman include photographs, correspondence, postcards, manuscripts of speeches, household items and clothing accessories. Curators say the objects will help document the life and work of a woman who was born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore and gained acclaim as a Civil War spy and suffragist who helped others escape from slavery as part of a network known as the Underground Railroad.

The items were donated by Charles Blockson, a writer and historian from Pennsylvania who acquired them after the death of a Tubman relative.

Blockson said he is the descendant of a man who escaped slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore with Tubman and settled in Canada.

"I inherited her belongings and for eight months I kept them with me in my bedroom, but they belong in this museum," he said.

Items such as the shawl and hymnal are valuable in shedding light on Tubman's private life, said museum director Lonnie Bunch III.

"There is something both humbling and sacred found in the personal items of such an iconic person," he said. "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."


The museum was by Congress in 2003, during the administration of President George W. Bush. Half of the funding for the museum's construction comes from the U.S. government.

Much of the difficulty in collecting artifacts for the museum, Gardullo said, is that many of the objects were never meant to last, and were tucked away in people's attics, basements and closets.

"The African-American history that we are reclaiming and want to share is fragile," he said. "It was not meant to be permanent. Now it's time to save it before it is lost."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.