On Easter weekend, Everett Staten is a hard man to catch for more than a couple words. Sporting a black baseball cap at his signature event, The Black History and Culture Showcase, he can barely cover a few yards through the Pennsylvania Convention Center hallway before his name is called out…again.
“It’s like when you host a party at your place,” says Staten through a laugh. “Everybody comes up to you at the end and says, ‘Hey you need to do this more often,’ but I’m too busy taking care of everything to just enjoy it…It’s a labor of love.”
A Temple University alum with a long history of throwing successful events, Staten came up with the idea for the Black History and Culture Showcase while acting as caregiver in the nineties for his mother. Staten had seen one of his events, Black Expo USA, shut down after transforming from a premiere networking opportunity for small black business owners to what he called a “concert with a flea market.”
“Nothing against parties, but I wanted to do something meaningful,” said Staten. “There really wasn’t anything that focused on history and culture.”
Including a few early iterations, this marks the fourteenth year of the Black History and Culture Showcase. The event takes place every Easter Weekend and is always free to the public. There is a rotating collection of events, exhibits, and performances that focus on the contributions of the African diaspora to the broader culture.
“When I hear someone say, ‘I didn’t know that,’ it’s mission accomplished,” said Staten while talking about his goals for the event. “People don’t even realize all of the inventions that came from black people. We are working on a play where a white family has to go one day without using an invention made by a black person. It’s a wicked day.”
One exhibit in particular drives home the point of Staten’s play.
The International Black Inventions Museum displays patents of black inventors. Many of the items are things that we completely take for granted, like the folding chair. Others are nothing short of crucial to the modern world, like the refrigeration systems for long-haul trucks.
The Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Slavery Museum is the custodian of a very different type of black memory. The long table holds slave and Jim Crow era artifacts that represent the ugliest of American history. There are shackles that were used on slaves and signs that once designated segregated drinking fountains.
“My museum is a museum of horrors,” says J. Justin Ragsdale, the museum’s owner, who collected the pieces over a lifetime of trips to the South and adventures with metal detectors.
There is a palpable sense of anxiety when Ragsdale starts a demonstration. Two African American pre-teens sit on top of stools. Ragsdale places a single shackle on one of their ankles and launches into an explanation of conditions on slave ships.
The audience clings to the horrors of the description, but the possibility of another shackle going on a child’s leg is too much.
Ragsdale says the ability to touch actual artifacts is a way to bring history alive, and that may also be the showcase’s greatest accomplishment. The people it honors and histories it laments both have a way of feeling like something from a distant past.
The Showcase does a remarkable of job of flattening that time line by giving attendees the chance to not just be close to artifacts, but to speak to people like Tuskegee Airmen who also lived it. Leaving the showcase isn’t just walking away with a lesson, but the sense our history is not so far behind us.
NewsWorks Tonight’s Dave Heller spoke with Everett Staten last week. Listen to their conversation below.