Taking a Look at Philly's Lest We Forget Museum

As the nucleus of American democracy, Philadelphia strives to champion the highest standards of human rights, even when it’s more comfortable to turn the other cheek. Located at 5501 Germantown Ave., the Lest We Forget Museum’s (LWFM) extensive collection uncovers the painful legacy of American slavery by displaying various artifacts used in slavery enforcement, such as slave ironware, shackles and manacles.

J. Justin and Gwen Ragsdale opened LWFM  in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia back in 2002, where they remained until they were forced out in 2017 due to gentrification. Gwen Ragsdale said that, in the 1950s and 1960s, Port Richmond was considered a “sundown” area, meaning that African Americans had to leave the area before sundown or risk facing serious consequences. As a result, although the Ragsdales did not encounter issues with the surrounding community when they first opened LWFM, many older African Americans were still concerned about traveling to this area, which remained home to mostly Eastern European immigrants.

LWFM’s visitors have significantly increased both locally and globally since moving to their Germantown location, according to Gwen Ragsdale. 

“The sensitive nature of our authentic collectibles sets us apart from other history-related Philadelphia museums,” said Gwen Ragsdale. “Having a slavery museum in Philadelphia adds to the value of the many other local history museums by raising awareness and understanding of a critical period of American history.” 

Gwen Ragsdale understands that the history encapsulated in LWFM’s artifacts can be painful, but notes that fostering awareness for this dark and tragic legacy provides visitors with the skills to contextualize modern racial struggles, “You realize the importance of acknowledging that it happened, and realize how vestiges of slavery continue to impact communities of color.”

LWFM’s collection specifically highlights the struggles African people faced in coming to America. In addition to this, the Ragsdales have curated a traveling exhibit that captures a cross-section of rare objects from various eras of American slave history, including slave shackles, Bill of Sale documents, Jim Crow objects, segregation signs and other related items. The Ragsdales have brought this exhibit to universities, schools, places of worship and conferences.

“My husband began collecting slave shackles and other forms of slave ironware for more than 50 years,” said Gwen Ragsdale. “Because he specifically concentrated on such items we've been told that we may have the most extensive collection of slave shackles in the US. Enough to loan to other area museums, ie: Constitution Center, Phila Art Museum as well as the Schomburg, DuSable and the AA Smithsonian in DC.”

LWFM provides local and national visitors with the opportunity to significantly confront the struggle coming to America posed to the millions of kidnapped and enslaved Africans that were held in bondage for decades. Through this, LWFM not only improves the community’s understanding of slavery’s impact, but elevates Philadelphia’s other museums by placing their exhibits in context of this critical period of American history.

“We continue to collect rare objects,” said Gwen Ragsdale. “In addition, we often have items sent to us from individuals who have had objects in their families who want to rid themselves of items because they find offensive. Many wish to remain anonymous, we accept them graciously.”

As 2019 draws to an end, what does the future look like for the museum? Quite bright, Ragsdale added, due to the growing interest in the subject of slavery stemming from the 1619 project, various movies and documentaries.

Anyone interested in learning more about LWFM can visit their website, http://lwfsm.com/.


Article written by Peak Johnson on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association