They Were Rich and Black in Birmingham: Remembering the Raglands through Artifacts

Margaret Schedler

Margaret Schedler

Tuesday, November 15, 2022
They Were Rich and Black in Birmingham: Remembering the Raglands through Artifacts

Photo of the Ragland family courtesy of Birmingham Public Library Archives

One of the first collections I processed last summer for the Birmingham Public Library Archives belonged to the Ragland family, the same Ragland family who appeared on Family Feud in 2016. While documenting the collection and through some of my own sleuthing, I learned more about the Raglands than I could include in their "finding aid" (the basic index that helps archivists keep track of materials in the collection, which can be papers, pictures, diaries, and more). You aren't supposed to include thoughts or opinions in finding aids because thoughts and opinions are neither fact nor helpful for finding material. But that leaves a lot out.

When I processed collections, I'd first sort through piles of items and separate them into the categories: financial (tax returns), photos, letters, personal (diaries, drawings, scrapbooks), and official (birth certificates). I'd also look for patterns. The Ragland collection had a pattern that surprised me.

There are three main characters preserved in the collection, meaning most of the items belong to the three of them: Reverend Fountain Ragland, his son Henry S. Ragland, and his daughter Gertrude Ragland.

This is where it gets cool: As I started to sort, I noticed there was a pattern to what each of the three Raglands kept.

Humans are notorious for keeping prized possessions close. Prized possessions are anything that harbors a deep connection or importance with the keeper. (This doesn’t necessarily mean what society would deem important to preserve). This is a historical pattern and it has manifested over time in archeology. Burials, art, and photography show humans' desire to remember and be remembered. Ancient burial mounds in South America are filled with riches like those from Ancient Egypt or Ancient China. Before photography, artists painted wealthy people with subtle references to their lives, like writing tablets to suggest literacy. In the early years of photography, photographs featured books, beautiful clothing, and art to imply elevated social class and wealth. We even do this today with social media, often without realizing it. This all being said, the Raglands kept the things they believed best represented who they were. 

The Raglandian Dynasty kept records from the late 1880’s to 1950. This is the time of the Tulsa Massacre and other violent attacks against successful Black families and communities. This is important to keep in mind because it means that the Raglands existed as a wealthy, prosperous, and successful Black family in the South despite intense racial animosity. Processing this family's artifacts, however, it did not immediately occur to me that outside threats were a serious concern to the Raglands. We know they thrived consistently for years until the endpoint of the collection, when the Birmingham archives lose track of their descendants. We do of course know that the Raglands were aware of racist violence because first, they were Black, and second, they kept a booklet on a Black man’s witness to racial violence in America (you can find it under Roland Hays Tenor, Ragland Family, Birmingham Public Archives).

My favorite Ragland is Reverend Fountain Ragland. Though he was the patriarch of the family, he kept no legal documentation of the family’s prosperity -- no taxes, property records, or deeds. Actually, he kept close to nothing. Any guesses as to what he did keep? Fountain Ragland kept receipts from Browning, King & Co. for custom-tailored trousers, suit jackets, and vests. He also kept three older receipts from Wanamaker & Brown in Philadelphia. (The above and below documents are available in the archives.) In my research, I could not find evidence to suggest that these high-end department stores were Black department stores or allowed Black customers. This would suggest that Rev. Ragland had the ability to shop in segregated stores along the East Coast while still living in Alabama. This was a fantastic find. Doing that must've been difficult, to say the least. The receipts suggest that he was able to mail his orders to the stores and receive the tailored garments a few weeks later. Each receipt had Rev. Ragland’s specific measurements perhaps so he could avoid traveling to Philadelphia just to be measured under a condescending eye (or worse). We will probably never know.

After finding his receipts, I found handwritten and revised editions of Rev. Ragland’s will. He wrote and rewrote his will numerous times and kept every copy. My assumption is that he worked hard to provide for his family but his pride didn’t manifest in property rights or tax returns; his pride existed in his ability to afford beautiful clothing and to secure a financial future for his children.

I thought I had uncovered rare, Black-sapphic letters when I stumbled upon Fountain's son Henry Ragland’s possessions. It took me a moment to realize that I wasn’t dealing with lesbian love letters, just Rev. Ragland’s son, Henry. He referred to himself as “sugar” in his letters to his future wife, inked on bright pink stationery in flawless cursive. I was guilty of gender-stereotyping at its best.

Henry oversaw the Ragland's financial, property, and legal matters. There were two sides to Henry that I didn’t see with Fountain or Gertrude. Henry kept all of the family’s bank statements, property deeds, legal certificates, and tax returns (all of which were impressive for the time-period), but he also kept numerous letters to his wife, Mamie Sykes. In some of the correspondence I processed, Henry writes to his friends about the wedding and asks them to be part of it. He kept their wedding certificate and many other documents that show Henry and Mamie’s love for one another. Henry’s possessions show what his real passion was. Not finance or property, it was his wife.

Fountain Ragland's daughter Gertrude took me the longest to process just due to the volume of documents under her name. She was academically gifted and that was very important to her. We know this because she kept close to forty educational certificates granted by the state. She graduated from Miles Memorial College and continued to apply for certificates from the state which would allow her to teach. She had to reapply every year which is why there were so many certificates in the collection. Gertrude kept nothing else, speaking volumes about what she considered important for her legacy. She was an educated Black woman from Alabama and she succeeded in every academic pursuit she took on. She finally acquired a job as a school teacher around 1940. The latest document Gertrude kept was the September 25, 1940 letter to her employer requesting a few more weeks off work so that she could recover from an illness. Tragically, she passed away later that year in November. We don't know her cause of death. 

The Raglands are the most interesting family I encountered while working in the archives because they leave so many questions unanswered and defy expectations. They took every opportunity possible to surround themselves with education, culture, and excellence. Among the personal items included in the collection, there are a number of pamphlets from Art museum, first-class train dining-car menu, and programs from orchestra events put on by Columbia University. The opportunities the Raglands enjoyed are fantastic for the time in which they lived. Their lives were extraordinary acts of resistance against 1900s racist society, and they flourished in their resilience. The Ragland family is an excellent example of power and class in the South and, as I wrote in the finding aid, they were able to access a life unavailable to other Black people. It is important for us, as southerners being educated in Birmingham, to remember families like the Raglands who defied southern society and made a world of influence and privilege around them.

Processing the Ragland’s was an honor and the highlight of my summer spent in the basement of the Birmingham Public Library.

The aforementioned documents can be found in the library's Ragland Family Collection, code AR 2233. 

To share your thoughts on this or anything else you've see in The Acta Diurna, to suggest story ideas, or to become a contributor, email