The discoveries can come through late-night e-mails, conversations with elderly black women over weak tea, or at a community center where someone brings in a great-grandfather's diploma.
Such is life at the moment for Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, who is working to bring essential documents and artifacts of the black American story to the public. So far he has a Selmer trumpet once owned by jazz innovator Louis Armstrong, a Jim Crow railroad car from outside Chattanooga, Tenn., a sign from a Nashville bus that reads "This part of bus for colored race," an 1850 slave badge from Charleston, S.C., and a porcelain drinking fountain labeled "colored."
The museum also has a house built about 1874 in Poolesville by the Jones family, freed slaves who founded an all-black community in Montgomery County, Md., as well as a letter signed by Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of a successful slave revolt in Haiti, not to mention a cape and jumpsuit from the late soul superstar James Brown, and the 700 garments and 300 accessories from the Black Fashion Museum, which closed in 2007.
But there have been disappointments along the way.
Earlier this year, Bunch received a letter that Frederick Douglass wrote to Booker T. Washington in February 1895. This piqued his interest, but the one-page correspondence had to be authenticated. It turned out to be a facsimile, with the original in a Washington collection in Alabama. "We showed it to three experts," Bunch says. "Now, we don't know if it was a facsimile made by Washington's secretary, but it isn't the original."
But what do the old folks say - when one door closes, another opens? "Because of that, I said, 'I still need some good Frederick Douglass material,' " Bunch says. The result? "Now I have a letter between Douglass and John Brown. We are convinced it is real and now we are negotiating with the private collector."
It's all in a day's work when you're building a collection for a museum that is far down the road - the $500 million project on 5 acres near the Washington Monument is not scheduled to open until 2015 - and which, supporters have said, will fulfill the aspirations of those who have wanted this museum on the Mall for decades, and is intended to enliven a unique American story for future generations.
"The exhibitions and opening the building are the priorities," says Bunch, acknowledging that Smithsonian-worthy artifacts can come from both expected and surprising places. "Much of the 20th century and some of the 19th century materials are in people's attics and basements and homes." Consequently, Bunch has cast an especially wide net.
Just a few weeks ago the museum accepted a highly unusual donation: the original coffin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy killed in Mississippi in 1955, whose battered body in an open casket became a pivotal rallying cry for the modern civil rights movement. When the news broke this summer that the empty casket was being neglected in a Chicago cemetery, Bunch's and Till's relatives got in touch with one another. "That was serendipitous," he says.
Bunch, who expects to have a curatorial staff of eight by the fall, is pinning down priorities and establishing focus. He asks himself: What are the stories we want to tell? "I don't know how, but we will discuss slavery. We will do segregation, the civil rights movement, music and leisure," Bunch says. "It's an evolutionary process. Here are the big stories, and that allows the staff to think about what kind of material we need."
On the museum's wish list is a slave cabin and a slave ship. "We have some manifestations of slavery - shackles and clothing. And we have identified several cabins. We need to have the real provenance and we are trying to find one that had limited use after slavery," Bunch says. The ship might be harder, but he says he'll settle for part of an authentic ship. "More than likely, we will have a piece, like the pieces of the (Jesus') cross, and use technology to build it out. The question is how do you humanize the big moments. If you have a piece of a ship, you can tell the story of that one ship."