Frequently Asked Questions
The images in the Jim Crow Museum are the same images that are found in college textbooks. A Jim Crow sign, for example, "Whites Only," is an ugly reminder of segregation. Should we not use textbooks that show pictures of this sign in our classes? The same question applies to caricatured images of Blacks that are found in textbooks and documentaries, such as Ethnic Notions.
The museum reminds some Blacks, especially middle-aged African Americans, of a time when Blacks were confined to menial jobs, denied entry into White schools, hassled when they tried to vote, crowded into ghettos, and routinely treated with disrespect. In the museum they see postcards with Black children portrayed as "Alligator Bait," Black men depicted as Coons, and Black women portrayed as husband beaters. These images remind them of an America they want, some desperately, to forget.
We emphasize, during all sessions, that the racist images are caricatures, not accurate depictions. Moreover, they were caricatures with a purpose: to undergird Jim Crow society.
How can we forget when old items are sold at premium prices, and new racist items enter the market each day? Go to Ebay or Yahoo and search for auctions with these words: nigger, Sambo, mammy, blackface, lynching, Jim Crow, golliwog, picaninny, and Aunt Jemima.
There were positive images of Blacks produced in the past; however, the dominant images of Blacks were negative. Also, many of the positive images were produced by Blacks. The museum attempts to show how racist images permeated America. Racist images were produced by major American companies, including, Disney, Milton Bradley, Life, and Coca-Cola. For most of America's history, positive (or even non-negative) images of Blacks were not normative. Black women were portrayed as Mammies or Nellies; Black men were depicted as Sambos, Coons, or Toms. The museum does include a display case that shows contemporary positive images of African Americans.
Some Whites who visit the museum feel guilty about the ways that Blacks were treated in the past. This is not the goal of the museum. The major goal of the museum is to deconstruct the racial stereotypes that both reflected and shaped attitudes about Black Americans. This is sometimes painful. We try to create an environment where learning will occur. Before entering the Museum participants master academic material regarding race relations; after the Museum experience they are afforded opportunities to process what they saw. Our goal is to move beyond emotions (guilt and anger) to a deeper understanding of American race relations. We have been successful in most instances.
© Dr. David Pilgrim, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion
Founder of the Jim Crow Museum
Ferris State University