Lest We Forget: Historic Strawberry Mansion Hosts Black History Month Exhibit
Once, while searching for artifacts with a group interested in Civil War history, someone threw J. Justin Ragsdale a metal object.
“Hey J, I know you’re interested in these horse bits,” the man said.
The “horse bits” were actually a set of shackles used on slaves during the early 1800s. They would eventually be shown in the Lest We Forget Museum of Slavery (3650 Richmond St.) in Port Richmond, which Ragsdale owns and curates with his wife, Gwen Ragsdale. The museum has items like chains, whips and branding irons on exhibit that make up the largest collection of slavery artifacts in Philadelphia.
The museum held a pop-up exhibit at the Historic Strawberry Mansion (2450 Strawberry Mansion Drive) in honor of Black History Month on Saturday. Artifacts like shackles, whips and water fountain signs from the Jim Crow era, when racial segregation between blacks and whites was enforced legally in the United States, were on display.
In the late 1700s, the Historic Strawberry Mansion was built by Judge William Lewis who drafted the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” — the first legal motion advocating for abolition in the United States.
Tours are offered at the house throughout the year and all of its furniture shown is originally from 1770 to 1850.
Connie Ragsdale is the president of the Committee of 1926, the group responsible for the maintenance of the mansion its grounds and artifacts. She said Saturday’s event was the first pop-up exhibit at the house, but she wants to arrange more in the future.
The Lest We Forget Museum opened in 2002, but Gwen and her husband began coordinating traveling exhibits with his collection of artifacts in the ’80s, she said. She said it’s important people learn about the slave trade so they can recognize that there are modern forms of systemic racism still in place aside from slavery.
“Though much has changed, much has remained the same,” Gwen said. “There are mental shackles that remain on the minds of some of our people. […] There was self-hatred that we learned in slavery.”
Connie, who is Gwen’s cousin-in-law, said the committee’s mission to educate people about black history stretches longer than the month of February.
During a children’s program that is run in the summer, Connie said they discuss slavery in the 1800s, as well as modern forms of slavery happening in other countries and the United States, like sex trafficking, forced labor and forced marriage.
To start the program, the students are asked to look at their clothing labels to see where it was made and think about the possibility that it came from a country where workers aren’t allowed to leave the factories.
“History is repeating itself,” said Connie, who is a retired teacher and formerly taught at Roberto Clemente Middle School (122 W. Erie Avenue). “Modern-day slavery is a slavery that we don’t want to talk about, but it’s around.”
Gwen said learning about the history of the slave trade is imperative for people of all ethnic groups. She said Black people are just as American as other “hyphenated” citizens, like Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans.
She added that people need to know where they came from to move forward and make progress.
“We have to learn from this period of history in order to be able to appreciate where we are today,” Gwen said. “Despite the fact that we were enslaved for hundreds of years and our ancestors suffered the burden of slavery, we have the options now to experience the freedoms that they were denied and recognize that … we’re still here.”