Of all the honors and accolades bibliophile and noted authority on the Underground Railroad Charles Blockson has received, being bequeathed recently with some of Harriet Tubman's personal items by her great-niece is one of the most significant experiences of his life.
A longtime collector of books and rare items by and about African-Americans, Blockson has amassed the largest privately held collection, which he donated to Temple University in 1984. The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection is one of the nation's leading research facilities for the study of the history and culture of people of African descent. The Blockson collection has grown to more than 200,000 items including books, photographs, drawings, manuscripts, prints, sheet music, posters and artifacts.
In his 78 years, Blockson has walked with his personal hero, Paul Robeson; met Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes and Rosa Parks; spoken at the Sorbonne in Paris; toured around the world for the United States Information Agency; written books and articles and placed markers following the trail of the Underground Railroad. He was most moved, however, after learning that he was chosen to receive 39 items that belonged to Tubman. Those items included photos that many people had never seen, a silk and linen shawl that was presented to her by England's Queen Victoria and her personal hymn book, which he received a year and a half ago.
Blockson became a friend of Tubman's great-niece after numerous tours and trips for his research on the Underground Railroad.
"I've stood over the grave of Harriet Tubman in Auburn, N.Y., and the tears came down my face," Blockson told Diverse. "How did she make the journey so many times? They were exposed to the elements. People were raped and killed. She was a unique woman, and for me to inherit her items, this is one of the greatest honors. I just cried. This is divine providence."
Blockson donated the items to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., in March 2010 during a ceremony on Capital Hill. Among the donated items is a hymnal published in 1876, which includes Tubman's signature in cursive inside the front cover. The donated items are the only relics known to exist outside of her home in Auburn, N.Y.
Blockson's appreciation of books and African-American collectibles was spawned at an early age. He became ill with pneumonia and scarlet fever as a child and wasn't expected to live. Blockson also developed a lisp, which made him self-conscious. Despite his medical challenges, he became physically strong and excelled in sports.
Blockson learned about African-American history by listening to his grandfather sing songs about the Underground Railroad. His great-grandfather, James Blockson, had been a slave in Delaware, and escaped into Pennsylvania via the Underground Railroad. His zeal for documenting African-American contributions came as a young boy when he asked his White teacher about their contributions in building the nation. He was told, "Negroes have no history. They were born to serve White people." Fifty years later, the teacher phoned Blockson to apologize.
A standout in football and track at Norristown (Pa.) High School, Blockson often rewarded himself after a win by visiting a bookstore where he was drawn to books on the Underground Railroad. After a track competition in New York, Blockson visited a bookstore in Harlem where, by happenstance, he met Langston Hughes. On another occasion when he was searching for books he met Malcolm X.
Because of his athletic skills, Blockson received 60 scholarship offers, but chose Pennsylvania State University, where he roomed and was teammates with Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier and Lenny Moore.
Then known as Charlie "Blockbuster" Blockson, he became one of Penn State's best track and field and football athletes. …