Showcase focuses a wide lens on African American history and culture

Civil War reenactors representing the Third Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry explain the soldiers' role in the war to Lucette Bromfield and Kathryn Boston-Smith (right).
Civil War reenactors representing the Third Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry explain the soldiers' role in the war to Lucette Bromfield and Kathryn Boston-Smith (right). (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 21, 2014

PHILADELPHIA The annual Black History and Culture Showcase is a weekend gallery for the unsung keepers of the past.

They are collectors who display slave shackles from a warehouse museum in Port Richmond or travel to exhibits telling the story of the Colored Hockey League of Canada. And the Easter season showcase is a time to present what they've spent years gathering to an audience primed to know more about black history.

Both sides came together Saturday at the Convention Center for the first day of a two-day event that this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

"Our subject matter touches on everything," but each exhibit is linked by the timeline of black history, said showcase founder Everett Staten of Philadelphia. This year, the theme is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a milestone some call the 20th century's most important piece of legislation.

The law that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was signed amid demonstrations that Saturday's keynote speaker had a direct role in.

The Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian, 89, a lieutenant of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped organize demonstrations that were part of the St. Augustine Movement, a series of protests in Florida during the critical debate and passage of the Civil Rights Act that lent a sense of urgency to the legislation.

Vivian, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in November, told the showcase audience the civil rights movement was one in a series of examples of how African Americans fought to demand that America be true to its Democratic ideals.

His remarks capped a day of events that spotlighted subjects including black inventors, church history, Paul Robeson, the Tuskegee Airmen, African American genealogy, and the Negro Leagues.

In 2004, the showcase debuted as a small exhibit in one room on one weekend in February at the Independence Visitor Center. It later expanded to every weekend during Black History Month, but Staten moved the exhibit date to Easter weekend after getting hit with three winter storms in four years.

The new date has not been a stumbling block, Staten said. About 8,500 attended last year.

In one exhibit hall, Gwen and J. Justin Ragsdale of Philadelphia displayed the slave shackles housed at the couple's Lest We Forget Black Holocaust Slavery Museum & Traveling Exhibit, based in Port Richmond.

J. Justin Ragsdale began collecting 50 years ago, combing the grounds and creekbeds near former plantations in the South with a metal detector. The collection is an outgrowth of his interest in history.

"How did we get here, become subservient to everyone, and yet help build this country?" he asked.

Nearby, radio station WURD-AM (900) hosted a town hall on youth violence, adding a contemporary component to the event. About 300 people registered for the discussion, co-sponsored by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, in which a panel of four young people highlighted their experiences as perpetrators and victims of violence.

"I was one of the hard-headed children. I didn't think my stuff stunk until I stepped into it," Earl Stinson said, adding that he turned his life around after the birth of his daughters.

Outside in the hall, Quaseer Aye, 13, of Lower Merion, walked up to an aisle lined with posters of history-making African Americans. He rattled off their achievements without looking at the descriptions. Dr. Charles Drew: "blood banks." Bessie Coleman: "the first African American female pilot." Lewis Latimer: "helped Edison with the lightbulb."

A friend had encouraged him to go to the exhibit, Aye said, "but I wanted to learn more about what African Americans went through just to be here."


kholmes@philly.com

610-313-8211

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