“Our vision is for every child to channel the strength and perseverance of our ancestors and exemplify the legacy of our greatness.”
This statement is the vision of J. Justin and Gwen Ragsdale and represents their strong passion for equality. The “Lest We Forget” traveling museum is an exhibit founded by the Ragsdales, which holds many slave artifacts from their own personal collection. The museum came to Ramapo College on Feb. 19 for African Ancestry Month.
“My husband started collecting 40 years ago,” said Gwen Ragsdale. “When he was younger he visited an uncle, whom he called Uncle Bob, in Rockland, S.C..”
J. Justin Ragsdale would listen to his uncle talk about life as a sharecropper and eventually came to realize that his Uncle Bob served as a soldier in the Civil War.
When Uncle Bob passed away at 109 years old, J. Justin Ragsdale went back to South Carolina. There, he retrieved a trunk that held several of Uncle Bob’s belongings.
“In the trunk there was top of a Confederate jacket, which let us know that he actually served in the Civil War and was on the side of the Confederacy,” said Gwen Ragsdale, “Which wasn’t unusual because a lot of slave owners would take their slaves to the war. We also retrieved slave shackles from that trunk.”
This inspired J. Justin Ragsdale’s dedication to collect more slave artifacts, and he now has an extensive collection. Many of these artifacts were retrieved in the South and in Africa. With all of these objects, the Ragsdale decided to create a museum.
“We established our museum in Philadelphia in 2002, but have been traveling since the 90s,” Gwen Ragsdale explained.
The couple now travels to colleges, churches, family reunions, high schools and other community events with their artifacts.
“We’re very passionate about this, and we appreciate being appreciated,” Gwen Ragsdale added.
Throughout the years the Ragsdales have acquired such a widespread collection that they are able to share with other museums such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, N.Y., which is a museum where African Americans can learn about their ancestors.
The couple also shares their artifacts with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which houses some of their shackles, along with the Lincoln Exhibit and more.
The mission of “Lest We Forget” is to bring awareness to the slave trade, and by traveling with these precious artifacts and spreading their knowledge, they certainly have.
Along with the traveling exhibit and their museum, the pair have two award winning documentaries called “Lest We Forget” and “My Slave Sister, Myself.”
The Ragsdales began spreading their experiences and portraying their artifacts to create awareness, a message that they certainly seem to have achieved, and it all began with one single artifact.
“It was that one pair of slave shackles,” Gwen Ragsdale said. “That made my husband want to collect more.”