African-American History and Culture Showcase continues to inspire, enlighten

J. Justin Ragsdale holds up antique slave shackles during a demonstration on the conditions inside slave ships during the 2017 Black History and Culture Showcase in Philadelphia

J. Justin Ragsdale holds up antique slave shackles during a demonstration on the conditions inside slave ships during the 2017 African-American History and Culture Showcase in Philadelphia. (Branden Eastwood/for WHYY)

The African-American History and Showcase is kind of like a shopping mall, with a whole bunch of small special-interest exhibitors anchored by a few, longtime reliable attractions.

A visitor may come to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen — the first African-American fighter pilots of World War II, always a crowd-pleaser — and stay for the Black German Cultural Society, descendants of World War II African-American soldiers who fathered children while stationed in Germany.

Then it’s on to the International Black Inventions Museum, a popular display including pencil sharpeners, a lawn mower, a toaster, and a process to manufacture ice cream, along with their patents held by African-Americans.

“People go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that!’ That’s the most popular phrase,” said showcase founder, Everett Staten, of the inventions exhibition. “Now you know.”

Afterwards, you might linger to talk to the Gear Girls, a team of black and Hispanic students at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science who win competitions for designing robots.

Visitors also may be interested in what student archaeologists from Cheyney University, and the artifacts from the Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Museum of Slavery never fail to pique everyone’s interest.

“You know what was chilling, even for me?” said Staten. “We have a Klan robe, in a case, with blood on it.

“It’s one of those — whoa,” he shivered. “Objects pull you in.”

Everett Staten founded the African American History and Culture Showcase, a free expo held annually on Easter weekend at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Everett Staten founded the African-American History and Culture Showcase, a free expo held annually on Easter weekend at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Fifteen years ago, Staten founded what is now called the African-American History and Culture Showcase, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center this weekend. It remains true to its vision in 2002 when it was called the Black History Showcase at the Visitors Center of Independence National Historic Park: to teach people about the figures who shaped contemporary African-American life.

Many of the exhibitions are presented by a single proprietor with a personal passion, often working out of their own home. The Lest We Forget museum, for example, is operated by the husband and wife team of J. Justin and Gwen Ragsdale, who have spent 45 years amassing more than 400 objects.

Their collection, showing the story of slavery and Jim Crow, used to be displayed at a small space in the Port Richmond neighborhood. After losing that space last year, the Ragsdales are now a nomadic organization, bringing their artifacts to schools as a traveling exhibition.

Staten, who founded the free annual event to teach people about black history, is passionate about the showcase.

When the free showcase started 15 years ago, the National Park Service asked Staten to keep it on Independence Mall for multiple weekends. Corporate sponsorships rolled in.

But the weather was not supportive. After the event had to be canceled due to a nor’easter that shut down the city with 30 inches of snow, Staten pushed the event from February to April.

But corporations did not want to sponsor a black history event that didn’t take place during Black History Month. The money dried up, but Staten plowed on.

“Black history should be taught throughout the year,” he said. “We were able to talk to the Convention Center and move it to Easter weekend. No one does events at the Convention Center on Easter. It’s always available. We get a lot of family attendance.”

The showcase is low key by design; there is no headline entertainment to draw crowds. Rather, it’s people showing other people what they know.

This year’s headlining speakers are longtime civil rights activist C.T. Vivian,  a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., and John Carlos, the sprinter who famously lifted his fist in the air while on the winners podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He has been called the fastest humanitarian in the world.

Coming at a time when NFL players are chastised for taking a knee in protest during the national anthem before football games, Carlos is on a 50th anniversary speaking tour to remind everyone that athletes have long used their spotlight to oppose injustice.

“He went from being someone who was thrown out, in 1968, of the Olympic Village and threatened, to now they have monuments and statues of him in museums,” said Staten.

The Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African-American History and Culture includes a statue of Carlos and his teammate, Tommie Smith, in their raised fist pose.

The African-American History and Culture Showcase takes place Saturday and Sunday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

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