How a Black family’s Bible ended up at the Smithsonian

On a rainy spring afternoon, Denise Diggs visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She was looking for a family artifact.

Wearing jeans and a blue windbreaker, she mingled with other Washington tourists until she descended into a dimly lit exhibit area. There, Diggs began weaving in and out visitors ranging from the remains of a slave ship, a wrought-iron slave collar, and a six-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in front of a wall of stacked bricks commemorating the hundreds of people who he possessed were engrossed .

Diggs had a mission – to find a Bible that once belonged to her family’s patriarch.

A few steps down the hall she spotted it amid relics that highlighted the experiences of enslaved people and the role of faith on the plantation. The 62-year-old cried as she stared at the Bible; It opened to the first chapter of the book of Exodus, which tells the Hebrews who were taken into bondage in Egypt. This was the first time she had seen the Bible on display, protected behind thick glass.

Diggs turned to see a bespectacled tourist staring at her.

“It belonged to my great-grandfather,” Diggs said, wiping away tears as she pointed to the book.

“Oh my god,” replied the tourist. “Unbelievable.”

The Collins Bible in the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Collins Bible in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s pretty amazing to me that it got here and that we still have it. And it’s readable, not destroyed [or] hard to read,” Diggs later said. “As long as people talk about you after you die, you never really leave.” Now that her ancestor’s Bible is on display in one of America’s most prestigious museums, she added, “It feels like he lives on, and our story will live on.”

The Bible’s humble journey to the Smithsonian began long before the Diggs family discovered it in San Bernardino more than three decades ago—in a box of books to be donated to charity. Within its pages, the family found notes from an enslaved, literate ancestor, documenting five generations of births, deaths, and marriages. His neat writing provided Diggs and her brother with the clues they needed to trace their lineage back to the shores of Africa.

That’s a rare feat for most African Americans, since enslaved people were considered property in much of the country until the end of the Civil War and Emancipation. The federal government did not record their names until the 1870 census, a lack of documentation which, combined with other racial measures, has left empty branches in many family trees.

“It’s not particularly common for African-American families to find artifacts from the enslavement era,” said Brenda Stevenson, a historian at the University of Oxford. Most enslaved people were not literate, and records documenting their existence were made by slave owners who emphasized their financial worth over their humanity, Stevenson said.

Richard Diggs

Richard Diggs

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

The discovery

The Diggs family stumbled upon the Bible in the 1980s when Carlotta Diggs, Denise Diggs’ sister-in-law, spotted her combing her hair through a carton of books that are donated to charity. The box stood in a closed patio for years. In the middle of the pile she found a worn and dusty Bible.

Carlotta Diggs leafed through the book and paused when she encountered something unusual—on a few pages, mostly those intended for keeping family records, she saw notes with names and dates of birth, dates of death, and marriages.

The writing was careful and clear, mostly names and dates, sometimes just dates:

November 10, 1818

Kate Hunter was born on May 9, 1843 in Dallas County

Richard Collins Jr. Born in Dallas Co.

Richard G Collins and Kate Collins.

Richard G Collins and Kate Collins. Richard Collins bought this Bible after emancipation and wrote down every name and birthday of his family as far as he could remember.

“[The dates weren’t] from the 1950s or 40s,” said Carlotta Diggs. “Those were slavery dates. And it struck me that this was a book that was very, very important and stuff [my mother-in-law] should know.”

The names went on and on:

Sarah Rives March 1869

Silvay Rives, July 22, 1871

Virginia J. Collins to Morgan T. White. August 24, 1892

Carlotta Diggs’ mother-in-law, Natalie Diggs, examined the notes and recognized the names of her father and his siblings. She realized the book belonged to her grandfather, Richard Collins.

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A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

Natalie “was amazed because she had no idea that this Bible had been sitting on her patio the whole time,” said Carlotta Diggs. “And that she was so close to just letting it go.”

Natalie Diggs rearranged the book and spent the next two decades using the Bible’s notes as a guide to building her family tree. But by the time she died in 2005, she hadn’t made much progress.

Other family members took over the task. They were led by Natalie Diggs’ only son Richard, a retired captain in the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. His mother, he said, was thrilled to have discovered the Bible. But its broader value — filling in gaps in her story — didn’t become clear “until I started researching,” he said.

Over the next few years, Richard Diggs, 76, attempted to correlate family rumors with his great-grandfather’s records. At times he found the discovery process frustrating.

“I’ve heard all these stories and I’ve been chasing down these rabbit holes and found out they were dead ends,” the Victorville resident said. “A lot of things we thought happened never happened.”

The Collins Bible in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Collins Bible in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

His research led him to believe that Richard Collins’ grandmother lived as a free woman in Georgia before she and her daughter were abducted and sold into slavery on an Alabama plantation in 1818. Collins wrote in the Bible that he was born into slavery in 1844 and had an illegitimate son when he was 16. Diggs believes his ancestor escaped slavery and enlisted in the Union Army.

After the Confederacy fell, Collins married and reunited with his mother and grandmother in Alabama. As uncontrolled white racial violence swept through the South, Collins fled to Texas, where he had more children, amassed some wealth, and joined Freemasonry to rise to the rank of cryptic Freemason. He moved to Southern California in his 50s, where he died in 1918.

“From all my research, I know him,” said Richard Diggs. “If he walked into this room today, I would recognize him.”

Diggs eventually turned to modern technology and took a DNA test to learn more about his parentage. What he found amazed him.

While many African Americans are descendants of Africans who were kidnapped and sold into the slave trade before making a bloody voyage across the Atlantic, Diggs’ ancestors may have been indentured servants.

Almost 13% of Diggs’ DNA comes from Congo and Angola. The first Africans to land in Jamestown in 1619 were indentured servants from Angola. Diggs also found that his grandfather’s surname was on the minutes of an 1813 church meeting that mentioned the descendants of these former servants.

A woman stands in front of her home in Apple Valley, California.

Denise Diggs in front of her home in Apple Valley, California.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Historians said Digg’s ability to piece together his family tree was rare.

Mary Elliot, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said Bibles have long been used by “black families in particular to record their family records, those important moments in their lives, and their stories. ”

But the Bibles were not preserved for many of their descendants. Instead, they must rely on oral tradition. “There are some things that are not always written. They’re not always obvious,” Elliot said. “But there are ways to track down the breadcrumbs that tell us more about the story.”

During his research, Richard Diggs was confronted with a conundrum that also explains the lack of African American records: How did Collins learn to read and write?

Literacy was very unusual among enslaved people, having been banned in much of the South after Nat Turner’s failed rebellion in 1831, said Stevenson, a historian at Oxford University. According to some estimates, at the time of emancipation, only 10% of the enslaved people were literate.

By 2012, the Diggs family had exhausted their research. It was then that Denise Diggs saw a PBS news piece about the Smithsonian Institution’s newest museum that asked about African American artifacts. The family decided to donate the Bible.

Richard Diggs flew with the Bible from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, where he read a poem about his journey on stage and gave it to a Smithsonian curator, who confirmed that the book was printed in 1869.

A person holds a photo of a woman at a table full of old family documents and pictures.

A few years ago, while cleaning their house, the two siblings came across an old Bible with notes documenting their family history.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

About a year later, Diggs received a letter from the museum asking permission to display the Bible.

He felt torn. This was his last chance to keep his family heirloom. He recalled thinking, “Once I signed that, that was it. I’ll never have a right to it again.” But he decided to share his great-grandfather’s Bible with the world because “it’s the right thing to do.” .

It was on display in 2016 when the museum opened its doors. It took Apple Valley resident Denise Diggs six years to see it on display due to work and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The wait was worth it, she said.

Standing among the tourists, Denise Diggs took the time to read the museum’s description of the Bible, which states that Richard Collins, his descendants, “never considered themselves slaves,” even though he was born into slavery.

Denise Diggs stepped back from the exhibit and surveyed the room: most of the tourists were white. She wondered if they could understand the meaning of the Bible.

It was more than just a relic that testified to the spiritual life of the slaves. It was a testament to a man who had not only survived slavery but also ensured that his family’s history was not lost in the country’s racist past. How a Black family’s Bible ended up at the Smithsonian

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