Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Lest We Forget Slavery and Jim Crow Collection

For almost thirty years Joe Ragsdale has been collecting slave era artifacts, items and memorabilia so people can see for themselves what Africans in America endured, overcame and transcended in our quest for human rights, individual and collective dignity, freedom and self-determination. As a young boy Joe Rags, as he is affectionately called, spent time in the South with an elderly great-uncle sitting on the porch steps listening to his uncle and his peers talk about their life experiences. On one occasion and elderly gentleman asked rhetorically, “Who will tell our story?” His uncle responded “Young Buck here,” nodding to Joe, “He’ll tell our story; won’t you Buck?” Rags nodded back but never paid the remark much attention until his uncle passed and he went down to clean out his house. Among his things Joe found an old U.S. Army uniform and some other items that intrigued him. Joe discovered his uncle had served in the US army. He also discovered chains and shackles he later learned were used to bind Africans during slavery. This started Ragsdale on a thirty year journey that has led to the documentation of the horrors of slavery and the dehumanizing conditions of the Jim Crow era in America.Currrently Ragsdale and his wife Gwen have literally thousands of items, assorted chains and shackles, whips, pistols, slave documents, manumission papers, photographs, a KKK robe with the blood stains still on it and grotesque “slave blankets” made of the human hair and skin of blacks unfortunate enough to have been subjected to the barbarism of the times. “I started out real easy. WhenI got my first piece, I wasn’t paying any attention to it but once I got it and I began to see pieces like it all around, I started scooping them up. As I started grabbing them up I became more aware of the periods, where they came from, more aware of who was giving them to me what they were used for, why they have fifty different keys. Then I realized even here in America, in New York and Richmond (Virginia) they made slave shackles. They made shackles in Belgium, England and the ships and everything slavery was a big business.”
I first met Joe and Gwen Ragsdale about fourteen years ago at an African-American Family Reunion Conference. What struck me about him was his enthusiasm for the subject, his passion for his collection and his desire to share our story with many folks who quite frankly at that occasion didn’t want anything to do with that part of our history. Ragsdale a successful business man who owns a construction site clean up company, who has since turned his business over to his children, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money traveling and collecting the items in his Lest We Forget collection. I recently saw him at a Black History month celebration where parts of his collection were being exhibited. As usual he was teaching a group of young people and their parents how the torture items had been used on our people and the fascinating story of how he had come by this particular item. Ragsdale makes the most of these teaching moments and the children and adults were mesmerized by him. Later he spoke excitedly about some new items in the collection. “Now we have two hair ponchos, we had one we picked up another one. Also, I’ve picked up some slave balls. There’s a lot of equipment that I didn’t bring. I have a collar from Hinson’s. They were purveyors of 'horses and niggers' that’s what it says on the collar. That will come next time. We have a collar where two people were connected so you would have two people enslaved in this collar. We’ve picked up a few other guns from the period and a coffle. A coffle is a chain about fifteen to sixteen feet long, it has different holders, manacles and bracelets on it and it was used to take slaves to market to sell. That’s what we wanted to bring to this show but we didn’t have room. We have the most extensive collection in the country. I don’t think any museum has as much as we have.” Stated Ragsdale proudly.
Joe and his wife Gwen are also using their own money to create a museum to house their collection. His goal is to finish it with his own money and not be dependent upon grants or outside funding. “We have the building what we are doing now is spending the money to have it renovated. It costs money. I’m trying to get this done. I’m trying to make this a reality in my lifetime, so people can come and see what happened to our ancestors in that day and how much we owe them. We’re standing on the backs of folks and we owe them, I don’t care how many PhD.’s and double degrees you have you owe somebody. Somebody laid across the fence, somebody laid across the barbed wire, laid across the woodpile, the fire so you could walk across.” He was getting back into his hyped teaching mode but settled down to talk about his future plans. As unpleasant as the material may be it is essential that we know about this to better understand our obligation to those who went before us, what we owe ourselves and our posterity. The Ragsdales take portions of their collection to schools, reunions, conferences, to give presentations; Lest We Forget we were bought with a price. They also accept donations. For more information about the Lest We Forget Collection, call (856) 427-4262.

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