Michael Doub describes it as a hunger.
He has a need to know more. He wants to know the truth about a single, vital subject—the history of slavery in the United States.
Over 30 years, he has sought, discovered and amassed a collection of historical artifacts that is believed to be one of the largest privately held collections of its kind in the country.
“I’ve always had a love of history,” said Doub, who lives in Harrisburg.
It was during his travels for the U.S. Navy that he began exploring museums. He was drawn to exhibits that focused on African Americans and slavery, but he realized that something was missing from the exhibits. While there were words and stories to read, there were few artifacts.
“It became a hunger for more information, and the more I got into it, the more I found myself questioning things,” he said. “It increases, because when you learn about slavery, you learn about the Civil War.”
So began his quest. He pointed to a brown case.
“That was my first item—my first set of shackles,” he said. “They are child’s shackles I bought at an antiques store in Mechanicsville, Virginia.”
He pointed to another set of shackles in the same case.
“If you look closely, you can see damage—someone tried to escape from these,” he said.
Doub thinks they’re about 200 years old. In all, he has about a dozen pairs of shackles. They’re similar to handcuffs, heavy, made of iron with D-shaped pieces that fit around wrists, connected by thick, chained links. There’s a progression in size, from the child’s shackles to those used on women and men.
Michael and Ruby Doub have been married for 30 years and describe a “tight-knit family” of children and grandchildren. His career with the U.S. Department of Defense has stretched 41 years, focused on information technology for the Navy’s Trident nuclear submarines.
Ruby Doub is employed by Dauphin County and serves as the assistant to commission Chairman Jeff Haste. She’s also a former board member of the National Civil War Museum and Gamut Theatre, and, in fact, the couple enjoys attending Harrisburg’s arts, theater and history-focused events.
“I wasn’t supportive at first,” Ruby said, of her husband’s avocation. “I didn’t understand why he was spending money on these things, and he wasn’t always upfront with me.”
One time, Doub dropped his wife and daughter off at a soccer tournament in New Jersey. Rather than parking right away, he retraced their route to a roadside yard sale where an artifact had caught his eye. He purchased it and returned to his daughter’s soccer game.
“As I grew into my love for history throughout the years, I’ve become more and more proud of the collection and his passion for history,” Ruby said.
The collection is comprised of more than 100 artifacts—all of them mounted in plain brown cases. Each one required a search on Doub’s part. He tracked them down through magazine and newspaper ads for “relics,” at estate and yard sales, antique stores and barns. He traveled by car, train and airplane, purchasing tickets and gas, covering many miles through the Carolinas, Maryland, Georgia—primarily the southern states—but one local item hailed from Lancaster County.
He pictured one journey, in North Carolina. It’s where he purchased shackles, mixed with tractor parts, found in an old barn. He described the driveway, where red clay got stuck in his tires.
Some sellers acknowledge the artifacts’ uses, while others were oblivious, he said. Some were reluctant to say much at all.
Primarily constructed of metal, the artifacts look cold and heavy—physically, as well as in subject matter. Each artifact stands as a visual reminder of slavery. Although varied, each one was used to exert control.
Rattlers were attached around a slave’s legs or neck. They made noise if a slave tried to run; some cut into a slave’s legs with movement. Some items prevented slaves from eating—they were primarily used on women preparing food in a master’s kitchen. There are slave collars. Many of the items have bells, locks, or prongs. One bears the mark of the British crown.
Some of the artifacts have been publicly displayed—at the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg University, Messiah College, Penn State Harrisburg as well as Penn State University’s main campus and the National Civil War Museum. Doub often includes a talk titled, “The Danger of Forgetting.”
“There is a limitation to what people really want to know about slavery,” he said.
That’s why he believes that many museums don’t display artifacts like his; they’re too “real” and “raw.” But to him, they’re also “priceless.”
One question he cannot answer is whether his own ancestors were slaves. But he has wondered. A genealogy deep dive may be his next quest.
Has Wayne Motts, National Civil War Museum CEO, ever seen anything like Michael’s collection before?
“Never. Not in any museum,” Motts said. “Finding slavery-related items is rare. I don’t think it has to do with museums not wanting to display them—I think it’s finding them [that’s difficult].”
Motts was quick to point out that, when the museum was built in 2001, it was the first of its kind to put the issue of slavery “up front” as the cause of the Civil War.
“Slavery is a painful story, but that pain needs to be discussed,” he said. “The significance of Michael’s collection cannot be understated. They are historical materials, educational materials, artifacts to be preserved, interpreted, to tell the stories of slavery.”
All museums and historical collections begin with an individual—someone who sees the value in preserving the past. Someone who has a hunger for the truth. Someone like Michael Doub.
“Anyone who says one person can’t make a difference, can look at this,” Motts said.
Indeed, Doub said that his artifacts often have a profound impact on those who see them.
“People have multiple reactions—tears, questions, religious responses and some people just stare,” Doub said. “They say, ‘We knew about slavery, but we didn’t know about this.’”
To contact Michael and Ruby Doub about exhibiting their artifacts or presenting “The Danger of Forgetting,” you may email them at email@example.com. For more information on the National Civil War Museum, One Lincoln Circle, Reservoir Park, Harrisburg, visit www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org.