A version of this article by Lauren Christensen appears in print on December 24, 2017, on Page 23 of the [New York Times] Sunday Book Review
illiterate: the story of Harriet Tubman’s hymnal
[Photo Credit: Michael R Barnes/Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture]
In 2010, a church hymnal that once belonged to Harriet Tubman — the American abolitionist hero who, after escaping slavery in 1849, devoted her new freedom to leading hundreds more of her fellow enslaved out of captivity, first as a conductor on the underground railroad and then later as a Union spy — was donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by the collector and historian Charles L. Blockson.
Given to him by Tubman’s great-grandniece Mariline Wilkins (the daughter of Eva Stewart Northrup, whose signature is inscribed inside the book’s cover), it was just one of dozens of Tubman’s belongings bequeathed to the museum that day.
Eric Williams, the curator of religion at the Smithsonian’s Center for the Study of African American Religious Life, considers the book particularly revelatory, given that Tubman was illiterate. “This idea of having a sacred book and not being able to read it,” he said in a phone interview, “that’s a window into her piety. And it is in line with a longer tradition one finds in the black religious experience in North America.”
Although many black men and women, whether enslaved or free, could not read them, he explained, “these books — the Bible and hymnals — bore witness to the liberating power of the Gospel contained within their pages.” Williams told me that for Tubman, who could sing every word it contains, this hymnal would have been “invested with a spiritual power,” and that it is a text to be valued “not just as literature but as artifact — as an object of devotion.”