A few years ago, Rex Ellis, the associate director of curatorial affairs for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in September on the Mall in Washington, D.C., made a phone call. Ellis is a natural storyteller, with a voice that mixes congestion and control in a manner reminiscent of Jesse Jackson’s. He’d clearly told the story of the call before, but when I spoke with him this past spring, in his office on an upper floor of the glassy Capital Gallery Building, on Maryland Avenue, he repeated it for me with all the shock and wonder that it warranted.

“A phone call,” he began. “To a young lady by the name of Wendy Porter.” She had e-mailed him, saying that she had Nat Turner’s Bible. Ellis smirked slightly and rolled his eyes. “Well, there are a lot of folk who call and make all kinds of claims. So I said, ‘Mmm-hmm.’ But then she told a little bit about her history, and she mentioned Nathaniel Francis. And I said”—deeper this time, slower—“ ‘Mmm-hmmmm.’ ”

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