Local Live: Lest We Forget Slavery Museum

A virtual tour of some of the collection’s most impactful pieces (scroll down for video). 

One of the weirdest things about being an American, I think, is how defensive we are about our history. Institutionally. From the way certain government documents have been worded to how we are taught to reconcile colonialist narratives with hard truths — or, rather, how we are not.

With no national mandates, states create their own social studies curriculums (often with the help of local parents and politics). In 2020, CBS News found 7 states do not mention slavery at all, and 16 still list states’ rights as a main cause for the Civil War (which has been thoroughly debunked, btw).

True Story: in Germany schools are legally required to teach about the Holocaust — kids start learning about it in 4th or 5th grade. But here in the US, states like North Carolina can — and do! — teach slavery as “immigration of Africans to the American South” in a lesson about “why people move from place to place.” Wtf? It’s almost as though we think if we don’t talk about something, it’ll go away…

The Lest We Forget Slavery Museum pushes back on this mindset with an exhaustive collection of genuine artifacts, each one more chilling than the next: auction tags, bills of sale, shackles, branding irons, lynching photos. There are cases of grotesquely grinning Jim Crow memorabilia, and a whole room of heart-breaking obituaries of young men struck down by gun violence in the streets of Philadelphia. One of the most striking things about the LWF Slavery Museum is how well it traces the trauma this twisted system inflicted upon untold millions, through many generations, including today.

It’s not all doom and gloom — even the scourge of Slavery can’t diminish the incredible strength and courage enslaved people demonstrated over generations of bondage and subjection. There were revolts, resistances, uprisings, sabotage. Daring escapes and coordinated efforts with sympathetic white people fighting side by side for human rights. LWF also celebrates black achievements in a lively display called “We Did It, They Hid It.” It is truly amazing, all the contributions Black people have made to our society and the world  (yet somehow a white guy often gets the credit).

Pro Tip: this is one of those museums you really need a few trips to fully absorb. I tried to prepare myself by reading everything I could about the exhibits before our ZOOM. Still. There’s no steeling yourself from the emotions that come on when you see the chains, irons and slave-catcher weapons that begin the tour. Museum curator Gwen Ragsdale calls them the “receipts” of Slavery, and there’s something very visceral about facing history this way. White supremacy can’t hide here like it can in carefully-worded textbooks.

I felt a little overwhelmed, frankly — I think my brain can only handle so much information under such emotional stimulus. Looking back over our video below, I have to roll my eyes at how often I blurt “Wow” and “Oh my god” because I’m so hopelessly speechless. Words fail in the face of such atrocity. Maybe if US schools can teach more inclusive (and truthful) history, the next generation will be better at speaking sensitively about issues like Slavery and colonial genocide.

Meanwhile, museums like LWF are the best way we have to reckon with our own understanding of our country’s checkered past — and our racially-complicated present. LWF offers affordable memberships, so you can slow down and process all the feels & facts over successive visits. I already have a list of items from our ZOOM tour that I want to take a better look at, not counting the rooms we didn’t get to.

There’s so much here! Gwen’s presentation is just the tip of the iceberg — I hope you’ll find it as compelling as we did. For source information, please click on the links and for godsake schedule your own visit as soon as possible.

Grab your chance to take the blinders off, even just a little bit is freeing. Yes, this horrible shit happened but there’s a way to heal with truth and accountability. We can start right here, just open your eyes.

TRANSCRIPTION: Lest We Forget Slavery Museum (Local tour)
Please note, this 40-minute presentation has been edited into 7 separate clips for convenience, this first video will play through them all automatically or you can view individually below).

CLIP 1:

Gwen Ragsdale 

I’d like to start off by sharing with you, as I said, we’re the only slavery Museum in Philadelphia, and the only museum with actual slavery artifacts that were used during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We have an extensive number of iron shackles and manacles, branding irons and other forms of ironware that were used to restrain captured and enslaved Africans, brought from Africa to the United States and quite frankly, all over the world. And to be able to see these items really makes you understand how different coming to America was for Africans as opposed to immigrants who came here voluntarily.

So we’re very proud of our collection. And we use it to tell the history this portion of American history, which I stress is American history and not Black history, because you can’t talk about American history and leave out 400 years of bondage that was inflicted on enslaved Africans. We are very much a part of the American experience, but we share it from the enslaved Africans’ viewpoint. As we tell truth, and it’s hard to argue with truth, especially when we have the receipts, which are these iron objects that you see before you today.

These are actual Middle Passage shackles that were used on the slave ships and other forms of shackles that you see before you today. These are wrist shackles that you see here. And these are shackles that were used on a Southern plantation. And these are quite unique. Many people never saw anything like these artifacts. These are actually what they call “runaway slave shackles.” If the slave ran away and was caught they would bring them back and put this around his or her ankle and every time that slave moves you could hear them. Oh my goodness, they would send dogs after you to bring you back. They had rewards put up — bonds have actually put up on these Africans who had run away.

This shows you pictures of how emaciated many of the slaves were when they arrived because we sometimes get questions about “Well who could fit these the shackles?” While there was no “one size fits all.” The enslaved Africans may start off very healthy and and heavy but by the time they got to their final destination, they were pretty much emaciated. Gonna go over here and show you the first shackle that inspired my husband Joseph Ragsdale, who is the founder of Lest We Forget Slavery Museum to start collecting these the items…

He started collecting these items over 50 years ago. He was always interested in history, but primarily history as related to the African experience. He quite frankly wanted to know how his people got here. It wasn’t something that he learned in school, or in the books that he had read — and he was a voracious reader. But back in the 50s, when he was growing up here in Philadelphia, his families to send him to spend time with his great uncle, who lived in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Now, back then, that was a great tradition when colored people — as we were called then — used to send your children South to spend time with their relatives. It was a great opportunity to learn your family history. We’ve gotten away from it because many of our people either migrated North or passed on. But this is his Uncle Bubb. And this is a shackle that he found in his uncle Bubb’s trunk, which we have here in the museum. Now Uncle Bubb never said he was a slave. But the stories that he told my husband made him believe that he quite possibly was, particularly since he lived to be 109 years old.

Carolyn 

Oh my gosh, yeah. And where else would he have gotten the shackle? And he never showed your husband this…?

Gwen Ragsdale 

He wouldn’t even let my husband go near the trunk. Every time Joe would go near he would chase him away. But after he died, my husband was in his early 20s, when he decided to go back to Rock Hill to see if he could find the house that he had spent so many fond memories with his Uncle Bubb. He had a hard time finding the house at first because a tree had actually fallen over on the house and so the house was pretty much buried under the tree. But because he was familiar with the area, he persisted, and he found the trunk. Once he did that, he pulled it out, started plundering through it, and eventually came across this shackle.

My husband traveled the world, primarily looking for slave shackles. And these are actual branding irons that were used to brand the slaves who were sold to the highest bidder. Some he actually purchased later on when the internet became available, some he purchased on eBay or from other collectors. And quite frankly, many of the collectors of these items are Caucasians. My husband started collecting by hooking up with a group of Confederate collectors who are going back to former Civil War sites. And the first metal detector that he got was given to him by one of those collectors. They found him, you know, to be interesting, they thought that he was a Civil War buff as well. He was actually looking for slave shackles.

He tells me of a story of when he was one time in a barn, on a former slave plantation, and one of the white guys threw something over to him, he said “Here, Joe, you seem to be very fascinated by all these chains and things. Here’s a horse bridle,” and threw it at him. But when my husband looked at it, he realized that it wasn’t a horse bridle, but an actual slave shackle.

Carolyn 

Back to your husband’s uncle, Bubb. So has he explained what it must have felt like when he found that item (the shackle in his uncle’s trunk)?

Gwen Ragsdale 

Well, actually, yeah, like I said, it intrigued him and made him want to collect more slave shackles and other forms of ironware that you see before you today. This is a shackle that allowed them to transport four or five enslaved Africans all at the same time. These shackles that I’m showing you here are actual shackles that were used on the boats during the Middle Passage. These are shackles that would be used, perhaps on plantations like this one. This was used on a plantation, maybe a slave who had just been brought from auction to just keep them contained. I’ll show you in here, this is an actual slave tag from an auction. It reads A. Goldman and Sons, Slave Auctions,  Atlanta, Georgia. 1853.

CLIP 2:

Steve

So I’m curious too, about how you mentioned you’ve never really gotten any negative reactions, like when you go to schools. Are kids ever kind of overwhelmed..? Were there ever those kind of reactions like “Oh, my gosh…”

Gwen Ragsdale 

Not just kids but adults become very overwhelmed. And that’s white or black. Because I have to tell you, to be perfectly honest with you, our tours are very frank, and we don’t pull any punches. We don’t want people to leave here thinking that slavery was a good thing and that these were happy people and they just did what they had to do.

No, slavery was brutal. It was horrible. These people were literally brutalized, and in many cases, worked to death, you know. So I remind people that you’ve come to the Museum of Slavery, that the word “slavery” is in our jingle. This is not the Museum of Butterflies and Dinosaurs. These are actual whips that were used to beat the slaves.

Steve 

You also mentioned George Floyd in the Black Lives Matter protests. Police brutality. There’s a connection with the slave catching patrols in the early days, correct?

Gwen Ragsdale 

Absolutely. This is an actual photo — sorry for my lighting here — showing you how that officer stood on his neck for almost 10 minutes and watched him die. But it was not unusual because during lynchings, you had these white people who look directly in the camera with no fear of retribution, because they knew that nobody was going to come after them. Many of them were law enforcement officers themselves. So though much has changed, much has remained the same.

But Steve, you’re absolutely right. These are actual slave badges. Slave tags, a slave actually had to have permission to be off the plantation. He was often leased out to work in another plantation the following day, so he had to walk at night to get to that plantation by the morning. And he would have white men who self-designated themselves to become slave patrollers, and they would stop them and say, “Show me your tag or paper nigger.” And if you didn’t have one, (even if you were free) you could be beaten, sold back into slavery, or worse killed. This was during slavery, and the slave patrols was the start of American policing.

Today, we have laws in the book called Stop and Frisk, that allow police officers white or black to stop anybody who they deem suspicious. And most of those people are black and brown men. And we’ve watched those altercations in many in many situations become deadly. So again, though much has changed, much has remained the same. Here’s some more slave tags and overseer tags. They didn’t always use a white man, sometimes the master of the plantation, the slaveowner would use his most dutiful slave to watch over, or oversee, his slaves. And he was far more brutal than many of the white men because he wanted to prove to that slave master that he was loyal to him.

Steve 

Yeah, I noticed that one of the lynching photos you showed with the crowd standing around the mob was in Coatesville.

Gwen Ragsdale 

That’s right, just outside of Philadelphia, which goes to prove that not all of these horrendous acts happened in the South. Many of them happened in the North, you know? That was Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

Steve 

Because it’s much easier to sort of point the finger down South and say, “Oh, it was really bad down there” and redirect people’s attention.

Gwen Ragsdale 

Absolutely. This is triple lynchings of a three men who were lynched together.

Carolyn 

Maryland. Oh my god.

CLIP 3:

Gwen Ragsdale 

Obviously what you can see here is a Ku Klux Klan robe.

Carolyn 

Oh, how on earth did he get a KKK robe?

Gwen Ragsdale 

This original KKK robe was given to us by a white man who said his father was a devout member of the Klan. He was so ashamed that he never told his children or grandchildren, he left it folded up in a box in the attic. He said, “I’m getting old, I want you to please put this in your museum and let your people know that not all white people are racist.” And we know that to be true. All white people are not racist, but there’re so many of them that are.

This this was the first white nationalist organization in America, the Klan. I was introduced to the Klan when I was a young girl, when I saw in the news, this young boy who was lynched by a group of Klansmen. A white woman accused him of whistling at her or something, her story kept changing. Of course, his name was Emmett Till. When his mother saw his body, he was so mutilated, that she insisted that they have an open casket, so the world could see what they did to her beautiful son.

That woman who accused him of whistling at her, just a couple of years ago, just acknowledged that she lied. She lost a great grandson to drug abuse, and said that now she could understand how that mother must have felt. I just wonder, you know, where was her compassion 50 some years ago? More recently, this young boy, Trayvon Martin was killed just walking in his neighborhood carrying a bag of Skittles and a drink. The man who killed him sold the gun that he used to kill Trayvon Martin on eBay, it auctioned off for $65,000 (edit: actually $250,000). Again, it just goes to show how much things remain the same.

Many of these lynchings were turned into postcards that whites would purchase to send home to their families up north. This one reads, “This is the barbecue we had last night, my picture’s to the left with the cross over it. That man was literally burned alive!”  And they would sell body parts like burnt toes, burnt fingers, crispy hearts and crispy livers. To many of the attendees, they actually let people know that there is going to be a lynching or burning today, this one shows you that “3000 Will Burn Negro” And oftentimes they had their children with them as well.

You know, how we, how we tie in the Black Lives Matter movement is to make people understand that were it not for those compassionate whites that we show here in our Underground Railroad display — like Levi Coffin, and who worked along with other whites. Of course, we know about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, but it was these compassionate whites and blacks who work together to abolish slavery, like William Lloyd Garrison. And Martin Delaney.  And we compare them to these young white allies who marched last summer, during the Black Lives Matter protests.

They certainly weren’t racist, and many of them volunteered to be in the front lines, too. So the cops wouldn’t be so quick to attack them as they might if they were black in the front of the lines. So these are what we call our white allies. You’re like modern day Abolitionists, quite frankly.

We talk about the N word, which is used much too much in our communities today, these are items featuring the N word. This is a can of smoking tobacco called Nigger Hair Tobacco. Here is an advertisement for a black boot polish called Nigger Boot Polish. Or a label on a can of “Nigger Head Shrimp.”

That word wasn’t created by black people. That word was created by oppressions of black people. And every time we use it, we disgrace our ancestors. We just hope in this upcoming a group of GenXers, Millennials, Zoomers, that they’ll realize the harm of that word. And we’ll stop using it because now you have white kids who use the word to call each other that word, because it’s so confusing, you know. And it doesn’t matter whether that word comes out of the mouth of a black person or a white person. It’s it’s disrespect of self, and of our ancestors.

Steve 

I’m sure that when people come through your Museum, they’re obviously profoundly affected. What do you suggest to them as far as any reading or further study or things they can do to sort of educate themselves a little bit more about what’s happened?

Gwen Ragsdale 

We do have some books that we have listed on our website that people, you know, can read that will help them better understand where we are today. White Fragility is one of my favorite ones because it really makes white people understand what happened, and makes them also understand why they may feel the way they feel. White supremacy is something that is innate, you know, it’s ingrained in most white people, it’s just a matter of that’s just what is expected. So they don’t even know in many cases that they are privileged because of their white skin. But they are in fact. It is something that they should be mindful of.

This is a painting that we show, to make people understand how slavery has affected our black communities. If you notice here in this painting, the shackles are not on the man’s ankles or on his wrist. They’re on his head, which signifies mental slavery. There’s an actual book with the key over it, all he has to do is open that book and read to get the knowledge that he needs. And as a result of mental slavery, this is what’s happening in many of our communities today.

These are obituaries of young black men who were killed in recent years, and they weren’t killed by white cops. They weren’t killed by vigilantes. They were killed by other black men. So we ask the question, what is the difference? Killed by others or killed by brothers? Slavery literally taught us self hatred. And now it’s become so self-hating that we kill ourselves. This is also very profound. And we talk about, yes, Black Lives Matter. But it also has to matter to us, we have to be just as vigilant about blacks killing blacks, as we are about whites killing blacks. Our people are literally dying from lack of knowledge. This is slavery yesterday. And this is slavery today.

Steve 

So there are any expectations or assumptions that people have that you’ve had to correct. I mean, do you have people coming in with sort of some real misconceptions that you’ve noticed?

Gwen Ragsdale 

Well, I’ll tell you an experience I had just last summer. I had a grandmother and grandfather, who were visiting Philadelphia with their grandchildren. And they saw my brochures at the Visitor Center, and they said, “Oh, we’d like to go to the Slavery Museum.” So they came up here to Germantown and I could tell as soon as they walked in the grandfather was just, you know, going along to get along. But the grandmother was very, uh, you could tell she wasn’t happy about being here. But the grandchildren, they were clinging on every word that I said.

And as I talked, she kept, you know, grabbing her virtual pearls and clearing her throat a lot. And when we got to the Ku Klux Klan robe, she shouted out, “Oh, my god, did anybody survive this?” At first I thought she was joking. And I didn’t know what to say quite frankly. And I finally said to her, “Ta da!” She was so clueless. She really didn’t know. She didn’t know anything about Slavery and probably didn’t want to know. But she was uncomfortable to the point where she just simply blurted out her ignorance and that was it.

You know, to ask, “Did anybody survive this?” Her children or grandchildren burst out laughing. Her husband, as they were leaving tried to apologize to me, I said, “No need to apologize. There are many people like her. What you just have to do is educate yourself about Slavery and this portion of American history.”

Steve 

Well I hope that started a discussion at the very least, in that family. And it seems as though there’s a generational thing as well, where you’ve got the grandkids who understand it, and seem to grasp it more. That’s got to give you some hope.

Gwen Ragsdale 

You’re absolutely right, Steve. In fact, we have become known as one of the few museums where it’s a safe place to have conversations and talks about race and race relations. Following my presentations, people are sometimes overwhelmed with feelings that they want to talk about, they start asking questions, they start mentioning, you know, things that they’ve learned from their grandparents or their parents. How growing up, they’ve now come to realize that what they were taught, were a pack of lies, quite frankly, about black people. Because you have college students who are now going to college with black people, and realizing that they’re no different than them. So yes there are a lot of conversations that just spontaneously happen. And we’re glad that people feel comfortable enough to talk about that.

CLIP 4:

Steve 

Yeah, well, I’m glad that you’ve keep it straight, so to speak, you don’t try to soften it. And you really have to, you know, tell people this is exactly what happened. And you’re you’re fighting sort of uphill against some of that revisionist history that some of these people coming in will have learned.

Gwen Ragsdale 

Absolutely. Speaking of revisionist history, I’m sure you’ve heard of the 1619 Project written by Nicole Hannah Jones. She really exposed how Slavery, well, first of all, how it started 400 years ago. We celebrated its 400 anniversary last year. But now, this last administration, came up with the 1776 Commission, which serves to just erase everything about Slavery. They made it out like it was just a given, and how slavery was needed. And they’re trying to put this in the schools. It’s a lie. It’s all lies, and we can’t allow that to happen. We’ve already lost too many generations that bought into these lies, we must tell the truth. You know, here’s the article written by Ta-Nehisi Coates about 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, and how redlining and all these other lies, and all these other legislations, just keep black people suppressed. You know, it’s not like black people didn’t want to get ahead, but they were left out, they were left out of the equation, just like we were left out of the equation when, when the founders wrote the Constitution.

Steve 

How are you adjusting then with the COVID lockdown? Are you are you able to reach out to schools in lieu of..?

Gwen Ragsdale 

Well, in lieu of our traveling exhibits, we are now offering live virtual tours. And I literally walk them through the museum just like I’m doing now. And showing them everything, and I’m presenting to them just as I would if they were here. So it’s the next best thing to being here, despite the COVID. So a lot of teachers have taken advantage of that — we’re almost booked for Black History Month. We still are in the habit of waiting 28 days out of the year to talk about this portion of our history. But I encourage people to understand that blacks should not be ashamed of slavery. This is something that we should be discussing 365 days a year.

Steve 

Yeah, definitely,

Gwen Ragsdale 

Here’s another portion of our exhibit where we talk about the Jim Crow era, when items and legislation were created to just make blacks look inferior. These are salt and pepper shakers that many whites had in their homes. This pair here was given to us by a white woman who said she grew up with these on her grandmother’s table. She was so offended by him by her grandmother insisted on keeping them. After her grandmother died, she donated it to the museum, so that we can teach people white and black and young and old alike how the Jim Crow era just fanned the fires of bigotry and created misconceptions of blacks, you know?

Steve 

Yeah. It sounds like you’ve also got lots of interesting stories from people who are donating.

Carolyn 

What’s that? Is that a game?

Gwen Ragsdale 

Yes, this an actual game, Carolyn, that would be given to white kids to play with. It’s just like Chutes and Ladders and Candyland. Look at the title, “Darky Melon Patch.”

Carolyn 

Oh my god. What year is that?

Gwen Ragsdale 

I had that one here somewhere… Let me see. more recent than you might think…

Carolyn 

I’m always shocked when I hear…

Gwen Ragsdale 

1932

Carolyn 

Holy moly. That’s like a couple years before the Wizard of Oz was filmed, my goodness. Wow. It’s obviously propaganda. It’s very artful. You know they put their money into it you know, you can see that they didn’t hold out on the illustration, the best propaganda…

Gwen Ragsdale 

This is an actual 1912 calendar, a black man on the calendar, it’s an advertisement for a product called “Darky Toothpaste” and this here’s an actual tube of toothpaste that my son bought back from Japan in 2018, it’s still on the market today. This here Mammy jar, this is from my own collection. There are two black female celebrities who you probably have heard of who also collect mammy jars. They are Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey,

Carolyn 

I knew Oprah, I didn’t know Whoopi.

Gwen Ragsdale 

But I want you to notice these little salt and pepper shakers, because there’s some subliminal messages here. You notice that you’re all in certain positions? Cooks, butlers nursemaids and things of that nature. No lawyers, no doctors, no professionals. Because this is how we were subjugated. This is what people thought of us. We were no better than being servants, that’s the best, the most that we can become.

Carolyn 

And I think about the children that were in those houses that see these things. This was like at Sears, you could buy this stuff. That just blows me away.

Gwen Ragsdale 

You know the Irish were used as indentured servants. They worked right along the African slaves. As a matter of fact, the white Anglo Saxon Protestants, which was the elite whites, were not fond of Irishman. They didn’t consider them very dependable. And they said they were a bunch of drunken brutes. So these Irishmen in many cases, self-designated themselves to become slave patrollers. So they could treat the Africans, you know, as if they were better than them. They started fighting over housing and things so, yes, the Irish were in fact, indentured servants. A lot of people don’t want to believe it. But it’s true.

Carolyn 

It’s different than Slavery, though, right…?

Gwen Ragsdale 

Very much so because they were given contracts. Which they could work out off or pay nominal amounts of money that they could pay for their freedom. Unlike Africans, we were slaves for life.

Carolyn 

And it was always obvious, because the skin color is a giveaway, right? Whereas a white guy could just slip in wherever he needed to be if he if he wanted to. And again, that white guy is not being raised with constant images of a society that mocked you and put you down.

Gwen Ragsdale 

And you know what’s fascinating? You have a lot of white police officers today that have Scots Irish surnames. They have maintained their roles in law enforcement.

Carolyn 

It’s weird, you know, when you think how it started, and how it’s still here. The continuum is frightening.

Gwen Ragsdale 

That’s right.

CLIP 5:

Steve 

The other thing you mentioned about white privilege is how, if it goes unexamined, you don’t see these things in the in your landscape and your worldview. But then the minute you see one thing or another thing, it starts to unravel. The whole police history, for me was completely fascinating and eye-opening how it began as a slave patrol.

Gwen Ragsdale 

People need to be fact oriented. There’s so many rumors out here that they have turned into their beliefs, which in fact, they’re not true. I’m sure you’ve both heard about Black Wall Street. A black town, they had their own doctors, their own lawyers, their own bankers, and the whites literally burned it down because they were jealous. Well, the Ragsdales — my husband’s family — had the building, had a business here called Ragsdale and Sons. They had the first mortuary business there in Tulsa. And it was burned down as well. That’s one of my husband’s relatives, there, standing outside one of the hearses. But the business has been rebuilt, and now exists today in both Oklahoma and California. A part of history too.

Steve 

Well done. To bounce back from all that.

Gwen Ragsdale 

Absolutely.

Carolyn 

And again, and again, and again, it’s like the people keep coming back and keep rising, which is probably the message, the positive message that I’m hoping that everyone is getting loud and clear from your museum as well.

Steve 

The “look where you’ve come from”.

Gwen Ragsdale 

Exactly. And not only that, Steve, look at all of the black inventions done by blacks. The gas mask, the traffic light, all of these things, even the toilet, the mailbox, all of these things were done by blacks. The filament in the electric bulb, that wasn’t Thomas Edison. That was Louis Latimer. You know, but you never hear them talk about him.

And there are other more current inventions. This man here the next time you go on the internet, and you type in dot.com after the URL, you can thank this man, he came up with the scientific code for dot.com. Or this woman who you may have seen a movie made about her. Her name was Katherine Johnson. She worked for NASA, many of the astronauts wouldn’t even to go into outer space until she checked the figures. She died early last year at 102 years old. NASA just named the building after her. And the movie was called Hidden Figures. Mae Jemison the first black woman in outer space.

Bet you never heard of this man. Dr. Mark Dean, he worked for IBM. And he came up with the invention for the personal computer the PC that we many of us use today. Or the fact that Jack Daniels, the bourbon giant just acknowledged when they were celebrating their 150th anniversary, that it was a slave that taught Jack Daniels the recipe for distilling their famous bourbon. And we are telling the world about it.

I don’t know how old you guys are, but I was old enough. I watched the The Lone Ranger, he was based on a black man, Bass Reeves, who became a famous sheriff in Oklahoma. When they re-did his image, they created this white man as the hero. So you see how all these subliminal messages can get into your head. But this one always gets me. This random lovely looking woman, Dr. Gladys West, one of the inventors of GPS technology. Whew knew? You know what I call this? “We Did It, They Hid It.”

Carolyn 

Not anymore! This is great. I’m so glad you do.

Gwen Ragsdale 

Yup, I make it current, I make it easy for people. Well, not easy, but I make it so that they know that there’s some truth there. You have Holocaust deniers? How could you deny the Holocaust happened? How could you deny that slavery happened? Like I said, you can’t look at all of these shackles and ironware and say that these are just something that was made up? No, these didn’t come from a movie set. These are actual items that were used on enslaved Africans.

CLIP 6:

And by the way, this is what we call “the door of no return.” They had forts — every country had their own fort, located all along the coast of Africa. And this was the last sight that an African would see before they were taken away from their country forever. This is an actual statue from <unintelligible> showing an African in chains, which is very unusual, because they don’t usually show that. But he has chains around his ankles and behind his back. And that mouthpiece was to keep him from screaming out, because they had so many slavers that as they were taking them through the bush, they didn’t want them to make noise that might attract the attention of others slavers, because they were busy bringing them.

There are so many different Africans that were complicit in the slave trade. So like I said, we tell the truth, we let them know that yes, it was Africans that became complicit in the slave trade. But it was based on lies. It was based on lies, they had no idea that they were selling their people away forever. They thought they were simply taking them to another part of Africa.

Carolyn 

And I researched this for the museum tour. And they were comparing the Middle Eastern and African slave trade with the Transatlantic slave trade. And I read that the ones that preceded Transatlantic — and you can confirm this, I’m sure you know, this — That A, when it came to slavery, as well, they didn’t know how far they were taking them. And B of all slavery was more like you became a member of somebody’s family. And it wasn’t like for life. It was for a particular…

Gwen Ragsdale 

They were never taken away from the continent. This shows you how the African and the Arab Muslims were the first to start selling their captives of war. They were really captives of war, because they was warring going on all over the world. And they were fighting in Ireland and Germany and other European countries. But when the Europeans came to Africa, they started trading with the North African Arabs, and left it to them to go into Africa, to purposely capture Africans to enslave but they did something that would change slavery in Africa forever. They gave them guns. Guns did not exist in the African culture before the Europeans introduced it to them. Once they did that, then other African leaders, they wanted guns as well, in order to protect themselves. So not only did you have the Arabs, you have the Moors and other African rulers who started selling your captives of war away as well.

Steve 

Much like they did with the indigenous peoples here.

Gwen Ragsdale 

Absolutely. Talking about the three-fifths compromise that were written into law, so that slavers would get credit for the number of slaves that they had, yand again, legislation has played a critical role in how slavery was maintained. And it was always for the whites who wanted to keep slavery going. It was never to benefit the blacks who were enslaved.

Carolyn 

And the electoral college is also heavily biased this way.

Gwen Ragsdale 

Absolutely. Every one of these presidents owned slaves, including Ulysses S. Grant. He actually obtained the slaves through his wife because most of the women used slaves as their dowry. But he soon sold the slaves soon after they married. 41 signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. And during Reconstruction, look at all these black men who were elected into Congress. But they quickly ended that, you know, which put us right back into a subjugated position. You know?

Carolyn 

They had to stop the voting is what they did, right?

Gwen Ragsdale 

Absolutely. Mm hmm.

Carolyn 

It is funny how we’re right back there again.

Gwen Ragsdale 

You’re absolutely right.

CLIP 7:

Steve 

Anything else people can do to get engaged with the museum or just to educate?

Gwen Ragsdale 

Well, again, we would like you to come visit us. We’re open Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 4pm. And Sunday 12 to four, but we do require appointments. You can call us at 215-205-4324. Or you can go to our website, www. lwfsm.com and book a tour online. Like I said, until we were able to get back to our traveling slavery exhibits, we do offer our live zoom tours, give us a call to arrange one, we’ll be glad to accommodate you.

We encourage people to come and visit us. Check out our zoom tours, we also have a pre recorded Virtual Tour, which you can also purchase which you can find on our website as well. So there’s so many different ways and more importantly, or most importantly, I should say, because we are small, and because we are not located in a historic building, we don’t qualify for a lot of the grants that are out there. Most of the grants for these other large museums, because they’re in a historic site, or located somewhere downtown, they can get the Pew grants and things we don’t qualify for things like that.

So we basically, we ask people to donate to us. And it’s very easy to do, just go to our website, and click on our Donate button and donate to us. Because we are in a much smaller location than we were when we were first located in Port Richmond, much of our collection is in storage. And it’s costing us an arm and a leg to keep these things in storage. So we ask people to make donations because there are times quite frankly, that my husband and I have to decide, you know, whether to pay the mortgage one month, or to pay for the storage. But we can’t afford to lose our collection. So nine times out of 10, the storage always wins out.

So we are desperately in need of funding. But we also encourage you to come and see what we have. Just support us. I’ll just say that I have produced and written two award-winning films. One is called “Lest We Forget,” which features myself and my husband. He talks about how the shackles were utilized, I talked about the abolitionist period, the Jim Crow era. We won the HBO Martha’s Vineyard Best Documentary award for that film.

circa 1830: A slave auction in America. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

The other’s called My Slave Sister, Myself, where I pay homage to the African woman who survived the Middle Passage, and I compare it to the strength of today’s black woman. And it also shows how a black man lost his manhood, even before leaving the shores of Africa. That won two awards, the Toronto Film Festival, as well as the New York Film Festival. We both won the Best Documentary award for that film as well. They’re available online or you can purchase on our website.

And one of our items, our best selling item, is this booklet, Little-Known Black History Facts booklet. We talk about how Africans became complicit in the slave trade. How Wall Street was the first major auction site in America. How whites were able to purchase life insurance to get their money back for the many slaves that died. We have over 50 documents of Little Known History Facts. How about this one? In parts of the Jim Crow South, blacks were not allowed to eat vanilla ice cream in public. Yes, ridiculous things, things you may not find in most history books are in this booklet. This booklet is $20. You could purchase it online. Or, again, you can come to the museum and purchase it here as well.

Steve 

Oh, fantastic.

Carolyn 

Oh, wow. I’m gonna have to get my hands on

Gwen Ragsdale 

Yeah.

Steve 

Thank you again, Gwen, for making time and for giving us this tour. What a great collection you have there.

Gwen Ragsdale 

Thank you, Steve and Carolyn, I really appreciate you taking the time. And so again, there’s so much to learn here. And I like to also make people understand that though slavery was a dark and tragic period in American history, acknowledging its existence, and learning from the lessons will prevent history from repeating itself.

LEST WE FORGET SLAVERY MUSEUM
By appointment only, admission $10. Presentations are suitable for all ages and ethnic groups (and can be customized for length/scope/focus/etc). LWF Slavery Museum is a partner of Historic Germantown. Founded, funded, curated and maintained by Joe and Gwen Ragsdale. Memberships start at just $35.

5501 Germantown Ave (entrance on Church Street across from Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books)
Open Tues – Sat 10am – 6pm; Sun 12pm – 5pm *Reservations Required*
215-205-4324
info@lwfsm.com
lwfsm.com
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1 Comment

  1. This was a great tour and educational experience. Thank you for highlighting a hidden Germantown treasure.

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