Philadelphia man hopes to open a slavery museum

He works tirelessly to assemble collection, but lacks a site

October 27, 2002|By Stephen Salisbury | Stephen Salisbury,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- Joe Ragsdale remembers the heat, the still air, the old men gathered on weathered porches more than a half-century ago trading stories about sharecropping, soldiers, masters and slaves.

Ragsdale's Uncle Bub -- an ancient black man who helped the Union cause in the Civil War -- recalled hiding in the woods as armies from North and South swept the Carolina Piedmont. The boy listened, mesmerized, as Uncle Bub described Union troops foraging, killing pigs and chickens, and stealing food not far from that very porch where they sat in Rock Hill, S.C.

Fearsome saviors, the boy thought.

Over a lifetime since, an inspired Joe Ragsdale, a successful Philadelphia businessman, has sought to collect and preserve the relics of a bondage he first heard about from Uncle Bub and other old men on those Carolina porches so many years ago.

And now Ragsdale, 64, has decided he wants to establish an exhibition space for his ever-growing collection -- at a time when regional museums want to make Philadelphia a destination for Civil War devotees.

Since Uncle Bub died in 1951 (he was said to be well over 100), Ragsdale has tirelessly worked to gather emblems of a hidden history -- shackles, manacles, iron collars, halters, whips, chains, iron balls, branding irons, auction tags, documents, drawings, and other artifacts of slavery and its legacy. The collection, which numbers more than 2,000 pieces of hardware alone, is said to be one of the largest private collections in the country.

`Tremendous collection'

Growing public interest in slavery, the breadth of Ragsdale's holdings, and the absence of anything similar in the region would appear to support his desire for an exhibition facility. But where, when, and how to go about creating a space remain undecided as yet. Only the desire to do so is clear.

"It's a tremendous collection and goes much further than the antebellum era, and consists not just of physical objects but also documents and primary source material," said William C. Kashatus, director of public programs at the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester, Pa. "It's one of the most extensive collections I've ever seen."

The historical society has borrowed from the Ragsdale collection for its current exhibit -- Just Over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad -- whose run has been extended to April.

That extension is only one indication of the quickening public interest around the country in slavery and the African-American experience.

Recently, construction officially began on the $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is leading an effort to create a $200 million National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va., 40 miles from Washington. A national slavery museum has also been proposed in Congress as part of reparations legislation aimed at atoning for past enslavement.

While the legislation has gone nowhere, it has kindled sharp debate around the country.

In Philadelphia, controversy recently erupted over the decision by the National Park Service to erect a new Liberty Bell pavilion near the site where George Washington lived and quartered his slaves during his presidency. As a result, the Park Service is expanding discussions of slavery throughout Independence National Historical Park.

A shared past

One reason for the increased interest might be a matter of emotional and historical distance from those dark days, some museum officials suggest. Americans, black and white, have reached the point where they can begin to look at even the most horrific aspects of their shared past.

"I think there's a maturity at loose at the moment about parts of our past," said Roland H. Woodward, president of the Chester County Historical Society. "Whites can deal with slavery with less guilt. Blacks can look back without an immediate sense of oppression."

Spencer Crew, head of the Cincinnati Freedom Center, argues that African-Americans are also looking closely at their past because of contemporary social and political unease.

"The public interest really connects to attacks on affirmative action," Crew said. "A lot of people feel all the advances are being stripped away."

Despite this kindling interest, there is no permanent exhibition devoted to slavery and its aftermath in the Philadelphia area.

The Ragsdale collection, then, could fill a serious void in the region's historical canvas. Moltke-Hansen has not seen the collection, but he is keenly interested in what it promises, he said.

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