Prior to visiting the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum in Port Richmond, I had never held a pair of shackles before. I’ve read fairly accurate descriptions of them in various books and seen them in movies, but to actually put them in my hands, and around my wrists, made them all too real. They were cold, tight, and very heavy.
I began to picture myself shackled to another person. Unable to move except to squirm and panic, I imagined the people all around me doing the same while sitting in the hull of a ship hopelessly gasping for fresh air.
As I stood there, I looked to my left at a couple. A young woman was crying and trembling as she held onto a collar with a heart-shaped lock at it’s center. It was lighter, more delicate, and more colorful than the other shackles. “These where used to keep female slaves in the main house,” said our guide, Gwen Ragsdale, the curator of the museum. The young woman’s visible heartache pulled me away from my thoughts as Mrs. Ragsdale told her to “sit down and take deep breaths.”
The museum, housed in a non-descript warehouse in Port Richmond, blends into an area dominated by blue-collar homes, abandoned factories and foundries, and corner bars. Formerly used by the Ragsdales for their cleaning business, they began using the building to store their growing collection of artifacts, the first of which came from J. Justin Ragsdale’s great Uncle Bub who was a slave during the Civil War. His death and the discovery of a chest full of mementos, including his clothing, shackles, and other items, lead J. Justin and his wife, Gwen, to become avid collectors of what now totals over 2,000 items including shackles, collars, and other memorabilia like Ku Klux Klan regalia complete with dried blood, maps, and other items.
Looking through their collection feels intimate and personal, especially for a person of color. This is why I try to come back often and bring friends if possible.
In late winter of 2017, I called to make another appointment to visit and discovered that the museum was not accepting tours at that time. Another request, months later, met the same response. After my third try, I was told that the museum was closing permanently due to lack of funding and the need for a new space.
From the collection of the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum. From left: a Ku Klux Klan “glory suit,” a ball and chain recovered from Savannah, Georgia, a noose used in a lynching, and a wooden collar and shackles. | Images courtesy of the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum
The Lest We Forget Slavery Museum is privately funded by the Ragsdales through their savings and now funds have now run out. The cost to maintain the facility was more than they can afford, and tours were largely by appointment only, especially since the museum is far outside of the tour zone of Old City. The question of “Why?” comes to mind when I learn that only a few places in Philadelphia have a collection of items that relate to the history and lives of African Americans. Aside from the Charles Blockson Collection at Temple University, which has more items related to the African Diaspora, the Ragsdales’ collection excels in its sheer number of authentic items from the U.S. slave trade.
When it comes to African American history in Philadelphia, the focus is usually centered on Richard Allen, Octavius V. Catto, and, to a lesser extent, both Ona Judge and Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved head cook at Mount Vernon and, later, the President’s House on Market Street. The rest of Black history in the city is typically relegated a lone historic marker or a brief mention in mainstream museums and tours.
But Lest We Forget isn’t the only museum experiencing difficulties. Other private and smaller museums devoted to Black history currently face the same dilemma.
“Those who cut checks only endorse museums they are familiar and feel comfortable with and the topic of African American history is still an uncomfortable one,” said Vernoca L. Michael, curator of the Paul Robeson Museum in West Philadelphia.
Michaels uses a staff of interns who work for free to provide tours and administration. But when it comes to funding, what little the museum receives goes to maintenance and keeping the lights on, which means almost nothing goes to advertising and marketing. Interpreting and sharing African American history with the public in Philadelphia is pay-to-play, and keeping the lights on for another month comes with reaching into one’s own pocket until a permanent solution can be found.
Barbara Whiteman, the founder of the Philadelphia Doll Museum, expressed a similar hardship. After 25 years of collecting various African American dolls, and 20 years since the opening of the museum, it is on the brink of closing permanently. Whiteman plans to retire soon to spend time with her ailing husband and she hasn’t the financial means to hire staff to keep the museum running. Much like the Robeson and Lest We Forget museums, a precarious balance of interns and pulling from her own pocket has kept the doors open for a long time, but that well has now run dry.
Each museum has had its turn in collaborating with established institutions like the Smithsonian and Philadelphia African American Museum, but nothing more came from it than lending out a few pieces for special exhibitions from their respective collections. Mrs. Ragsdale hinted that class often comes into play when working with bigger institutions–education, background, and a sense of not being accepted. For the Ragsdales, collecting was a personal hobby, not an academic pursuit, that moved from scouring old battlefields, plantations, and tracking down a few pieces left in the wills of the descendants of slave owners. For the Ragsdales, retrieving these artifacts became a self-driven responsibility to preserve Black history while filling a void created by most large museums and institutions.
For Michaels at the Robeson Museum, it is about the respect and love of Uncle Paul whom she drove, in her first car, to receive medical treatment when he became ill. And as for the Whitemans, it is a genuine passion for how dolls shape, and often distort, the self image of young girls. In each case, it was genuine love and respect that attracted their spouses, family, and friends to contribute their time and patience. But, in the end, each opened their own wallets to keep the doors open when admission fees and contributions were not enough.
Not being in a central location is problematic. “Unless you’re an avid history fan, most do not venture out of the Center City district,” said Mrs. Ragsdale. What happens next for these three, small African American museums remains uncertain. The Lest We Forget Slavery Museum is currently transitioning into a temporary location in Germantown due to rising real estate costs in Port Richmond. The Philadelphia Doll Museum is closed until further notice, and the Paul Robeson Museum operates around a light, fluctuating schedule. One possibility for each museum is that their collections could be absorbed by bigger museums with more funding like the Smithsonian and the African American Museum of Philadelphia. But that comes with the great cost of losing a concentrated, immersive experience that each of these small museums provide in favor of a single display or another glossed over version of African American history.
Donate to the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum HERE.
Volunteer with the Paul Robeson Museum HERE.
Contact the Philadelphia Doll Museum to see how you can help HERE.