Slavery’s Presence in Public History : How to Effectively Discuss the Past in the Present
I almost miss the sign that says “Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Museum of Slavery” as I uber down Richmond Street in North Philadelphia because the lettering on the door is so small it’s practically nonexistent.
I race out of the car, knowing that I’m already running 15 minutes late and become slightly concerned by the absence of light and human beings in the museum — or at least what I believe is the entryway into the museum. It’s so dark I can barely see anything through the door and so far it looks more like an abandoned house than a building full of precious artifacts. After I bang on the door a few times, I give up and prepare to call myself an uber back to Haverford when a large, tall African-American man, who I presumed to be the founder of the museum, Mr. Ragsdale, opens the door with wide grin on his face.
“Next time knock louder!” he exclaims.
I’m a little taken aback, but he gestures for me to come in so I follow. As he leads me into the first room, I’m still a little skeptical until he turns on the lights. I felt my eyes widen and jaw drop as I couldn’t help but gape at the incredible number of artifacts present in the museum.
“Impressive right? My wife will give you a tour when she comes in, but feel free to look around until she gets here,” Mr. Ragsdale says.
“Am I allowed to take pictures?” I ask.
He sighs and responds, “Alright, but not too many or else you’ll steal the whole museum.”
I try to explain to him that I would only use the pictures for a class project but he doesn’t budge. As he returns to his desk, I sneakily take as many pictures as I can before Ms. Ragsdale arrives. My initial buzz from pretending to be some kind of museum spy is quickly replaced with a distinct feeling of desolation and even a twinge of anger.
Perhaps my emotional response was a little extreme, but seeing the rusted chains used to keep slaves in check or posters advertising grotesque, inhumane games such as “hit the nigger baby” elicited a sense of horror that I had never felt before when thinking about slavery, least of all in a small house museum in North Philly.
I had barely finish looking at one side of the first room when Ms. Ragsdale walks in, welcoming me with a surprise hug and offering me grapes and crackers. She leads me to a different room where she turns on the lights and begins the tour.
The experience was very different museum tours I had previously been on. Maybe it was because I was only person there or maybe it was because Ms. Ragsdale insisted on inserting me into her slavery what if scenarios. She would propose situations saying, “Faith, if you were born during this time period they would have done [x] and [y] to you because you’re biracial, or maybe the slave master would have accepted you into his family etc…”, or something along those lines.
Although her methods were unquestionably unorthodox, she forced me to contemplate slavery from a more personal perspective. When she described and subsequently demonstrated, insisting that I participate in the demonstration with her, how Africans were transported in slave ships, I nearly burst into tears after she mentioned that slaves would have to remain, for the most part, in these uncomfortable squatting positions while chained together for weeks on end. I could barely sit like that for 1 minute. Just the thought of being in that position for more than an hour made me feel inexplicable anxious. She showed me instruments of torture and punishment used on slaves that I did not even know existed, including a collar carved out of wood. Ms. Ragsdale explained how the weight of the bark (the collar was approximately 8 inches thick) and the rough edges on the inside of the collar would scratch and weight down the necks of the slaves, resulting in infected neck wounds and permanent spinal and neck injuries.
My emotions peaked when we reached the final room in the museum, which contained artifacts from the Jim Crow era. Perhaps the most striking piece (which I was unable to photograph), was the uniform of a KKK member stained with the blood of an African- American who the former wearer had beaten to death. The old blood was still on the uniform. Lining the shelves were KKK propaganda and hate speech from authentic posters and hanging in the corner of the room was a noose that members had used in actual lynchings. By the end of the tour, I couldn’t help but let a few tears escape. I never imagined that I would be spending my Monday afternoon crying in the middle of a house museum in North Philly.
After the tour, Ms. Ragsdale leads me to Mr. Ragsdale office and tells me I could ask them questions if I wanted to. The following is a transcription of the interview:
“Where’s your pen and paper?” Mr. Ragsdale asks.
“I’m just going to record the conversation if that’s ok.” I respond as I take out my phone.
“No, no, to do the interview right you gotta have pen and paper.” He hands me the notepad and a pen and motions for me to put away my phone.
“Go ahead,” he says.
Faith: What inspired you to become a collector?
Mr. R: Seeing the need for a museum of this caliber- there’s nothing like it.
Faith: Where did you acquire most of these items?
Mr. R: Mostly down south. They wanted to get rid of them and I wanted to buy them. I mean nobody wanted this stuff. I remember there was one guy who was using a ball and chain for his dog. I mean imagine that, using the same chains used on slaves on a dog.
Faith: Why do you think people don’t want these items?
Mr. R: Museums don’t buy them because they’re not politically correct. Just think about the uproar it would cause if these items were in some big fancy museum in center city. People wouldn’t go.
Faith: What story do you want the Museum to tell?
Mr. R: See, this museum it supposed to honor the legacy and show the value and history of black people. A lot people wouldn’t, and still don’t give blacks credit: African art, language, music- a lot of stuff that has influenced American culture. I don’t want anything sugarcoated for the masses. This is tough stuff- but’s it’s our history, a legacy. You gotta honor it. You don’t think about these things too much, you just gotta do it.
**Unfortunately the interview was cut off because Mr. Ragsdale had a meeting to attend.
After the interview, Ms. Ragsdale kindly offers to drive me to the President’s House — an offer I accepted with brief hesitation (perhaps in retrospect this was a moment of bad judgment, but I made it to the President’s House in one piece). Though the ride was relatively silent, I felt completely comfortable in her presence, likely because she exuded an almost grandmotherly temperament and because I was just grateful to have gotten a ride. After a short 10-minute drive, she drops me off at the corner of Market Street and wishes me luck on my project.
I realize too late as she drives off that I should have asked her to actually point to where the President’s House is located. Not wanting to start wandering around aimlessly, I go to what I assume was the Independence Hall visiting center (I had never been to this area of Philadelphia before). A spot a woman at a help desk and ask her if she can point me to the President’s House. She gives me a strange look and says,
“It’s right across the street.”
Feeling foolish, I walk out of the building and realize I had walked right past house. As I wandered around the remains, it became clear why I had completely missed its location. Maybe my expectations are too high, but the experience is fairly underwhelming, especially in comparison to the emotional tour I had at the museum.
I’m mildly interested in the foundation remains, but quickly became bored by the uniform and monotonous set up of the house. I can’t find it in myself to focus on the corny reenactments on the tv-tablets or the monotone descriptions of different areas of the house.
Telling myself I would just read them later, I quickly take photos of the plaques and exit the house, heading in the direction of the Liberty Bell Center. A security officer stops me asking,
“You’re not going to see the Liberty Bell? Come on, you have to go see it.”
Put on the spot, I oblige and enter the center. Again, I can’t shake the bored feeling as I walk around. I feel like the plaques describing the connection between slavery and the bell a little lackluster and I find myself missing being able to see physical objects instead of just screens and pictures.
Once I arrived at the bell, I’m shocked to see a huge gaggle of tourists snapping pictures of and taking pictures with the bell. It took nearly 10 minutes for me to even get close. Exhausted from the day, I leave for the train station and head back to Haverford.
The purpose of this anecdote is neither to discount the historical significance of the President’ House nor suggest that the artifacts at Independence National Park are not worth visiting. The intent of describing these two experiences it to highlight the contrast between 2 sites of memory that aim to remember slavery in different ways. The President’s House and artifacts within the Liberty Bell Center cater more towards tourists than academics or those who are interested in gaining a more thorough understanding of slavery. Even in comparing the number of visitors, funding, and interaction between the two sites, we can see that the targeted demographic of Independence Park, and understandably so, is towards the general public.
The President’s House gives visitors a more digestible version of slavery, playing fairly tame reenactments of slaves in the house and giving brief descriptions of the “dirty business of slavery” that are easy and quick to process. The pieces about the relationship between slavery and the Liberty Bell describe the history of the bell almost with a sense of diplomacy, explaining how “many men and women- black and white — came to see the Liberty Bell as a symbol of the struggle to abolish slavery”. The Liberty Center displays multiple images of people of color who visited the bell including Ghanaians who came to celebrate their independence in 1957 and even a visit from a Korean youth choir in 1954, all of whom regard the bell as a universal symbol of freedom and liberty.
Although it is likely that Washington’s slaves were not treated as harshly as field slaves, the atmosphere of the President’s House gives the sense that the slaves were closer to servants. Edward T. Linenthal explains how “on too many tours of plantations and historic homes, slaves, if recalled at all, become ‘servants.’ Their lives do not often resonate with the dominant ‘we’ — the mostly white- visitors- who have little or no interest in imaging themselves back into the skin of or the world of slaves” (Horton, pg. 214). As I walked around the house and the center, I did not get the sense that visitors were trying to sympathize with the experiences of slaves. Of course, the construction of the house makes it difficult for a tourist to be fully conscious of just how inhumanely masters treated slaves. I can imagine how it might be easy to forget that no matter how well the slaves were treated in Washington’s House, a measure that is incredibly relative, every African-American during this time period was working because they were forced to. Some early critics of the House argued that the display “‘ends up distorting history by demanding the sacrifice of other perspectives,’ most notably downplaying Washington and Adams as statesmen” (Tillet, pg. 176).
Indeed, learning about the historic victories of Washington and Adams is objectively more pleasant than learning about the cruelty the very same men were able to condone and engage in. Others have similarly argued that this material is too sensitive to display in a public setting. As I watched children and even young teens walking alongside their parents in the House and the Liberty Center, I paused to consider how these visitors would have reacted if they went to the Black Holocaust Museum. It is doubtful that they would have had the same carefree depositions. I considered how if I left feeling like the museum tour was an emotional rollercoaster, despite walking in prepared for the worst, then the average President’s House visitor would likely have a much more severe reaction.
Yet many historians argue that sugarcoating the “tough stuff” of slavery simply exacerbates ignorance and perpetuates racism, factors that ultimately affect the lives of African-Americans today. When leaving the museum, I considered how contentious debates about race would likely be less contentious if more people went to museums such as Lest We Forget. I could not imagine someone arguing against reparations, for example, after observing such an intimate display of slavery relics. In contrast to the President’s House and Liberty Center, Lest We Forget emphasizes the power and influence of historical artifacts instead of words. Physical, tangible items are likely to incite a more visceral reaction in a visitor than simple glancing at a plaque in passing. Reading articles in the Washington Post or other media about how “lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the United States must address” etc… simply does not have the same effect as looking at a noose that KKK members used to actually preform the act. Reading about the crimes of KKK members does not compare to the gut wrenching feeling of seeing the blood of a murdered African-American man on their uniforms. Even listening to news reports about the unjustified police killings of African-American men does not entirely provide the historical context that puts these incidents into perspective.
Moreover, leaving people to leave history up to personal interpretation often allows for mischaracterizations of the effects of the past, particularly in the case of slavery. People often have the tendency to overlook some of the horrors of American history by replacing the narrative with a more digestible version of events. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen observe of how Americans exhibit the tendency to favor personal over national or formal history. They explain,
Probably less than 10 percent of our respondents formally studied the past after they left school. One fifth of them belonged to groups related to the past, but fewer than half of these groups study, rather than preserve or present, the past. Evangelical Christians, African Americans, and American Indians, however, showed more interest in formally studying the past (Rosenzweig and Thelen 37).
They note that African-Americans expressed a desire to continuing studying history because they felt as though there were personal stakes in learning and verifying information. One respondent explains, “‘For my race of people…’ knowledge” is ‘the only [thing] that can turn [us] around’” (Rosenzweig and Thelen 37).
Rosenzweig and Thelen conversely reflected on an encounter they had with a Kentucky woman who also felt as though she had a personal stake in certain historical events, specifically the Civil War. She explains how she should also have the right to feel proud about her history, subsequently describing a deeply misguided characterization of the civil war. Rosenzweig and Thelen explain how she “criticized the history she had been taught in high school, but said she found deep meaning instead in Civil War reenactments…American, she said, fought the war over ‘states’ rights’ rather than slavery: ‘Many, many, many of our ancestors who fought in the Civil War…did not even own slaves.’” (Rosenzweig and Thelen 32). She contends that Southerners should be able to display their Confederate flags proudly, noting that she does not approve of the ‘appropriation’ of the flag by either the KKK or the NAACP (Rosenzweig and Thelen 32).
There is a fine line between interpretation and fiction. One of the challenges for public historians is navigating this grey area. Creating more public spaces that do not leave room for fictitious narratives will help improve the discourse surrounding race and slavery in the U.S. The Lest We Forget museum ultimately leaves a visitor with little to be skeptical about regarding slavery. There is less questioning of the U.S.’s treatment of slaves and more questioning about the topic. One could argue that this approach is narrow-minded; however, this strategy will actually make dialogue more open amongst the public. The greatest barrier to discussing past events is bridging the gap of knowledge between people, and subsequently, museums such as Lest We Forget are certainly on the right path to diminishing this disconnect
Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton, editors. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. 2006.
Rosenzweig, Roy, and David Thelen. “The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life.” The Public History Reader, edited by Hilda Kean and Paul Martin, PDF ed., 2013.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “U.S. Owes Black People Reparations for a History of ‘Racial Terrorism,’ Says U.N. Panel.” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/09/27/u-s-owes-black-people-reparations-for-a-history-of-racial-terrorism-says-u-n-panel/?utm_term=.9012e7857937.
Tillet, Salamishah. Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. 2012.