Other People's Money: Speech to Ferris Foundation 2002


I am grateful to the Ferris Foundation and its supporters for the financial award given to John Thorp and me. It will help us catalogue and promote the museum's holdings, thereby, inching us closer to fulfilling our mission: to create a physical space where items of intolerance are used to teach tolerance. What a strange approach to combating racism! And, yet, it works. I have heard testimonies from hundreds of visitors to our small museum. I have read hundreds of emails from people who have visited our Web site. The museum is fulfilling its mission. Yes, we need to move into a larger location, but we are doing great work in that little room.

If the Jim Crow Museum reaches only one person; if it touches only one life; if it leads only one person to critique his life and adopt a more democratic approach to life; if the Jim Crow Museum helps only one person -- then we have failed!

Years ago I told President Sederburg about my personal collection of racist objects. On a hot day, standing on the side of the Swan Building, I described my dream of creating a learning lab, a teaching lab, a small museum, where Ferris State University students could learn to think deeply about race and race relations. He was President. He was busy, but I had his attention, and I didn't want to stop talking until I had convinced him that creating a Jim Crow Museum was necessary and possible. I told him that one day people from around the world would know of Ferris State University because they knew of the FSU Jim Crow Museum. He worried about the expense. In retrospect I realize that I must have sounded slightly off-kilter, yet he decided to help.

Today, the Jim Crow Museum is both a real museum and an Internet museum. The virtual museum (www.ferris.edu/jimcrow) is visited by people worldwide. We have had over 110,000 visits to the Web site. We have received congratulatory emails from Germany, Denmark, Japan, Egypt, Ireland, and people in many other countries. Our website is linked by hundreds of colleges and universities, including Berkeley, Vanderbilt, University of Michigan, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and really good schools like The Ohio State University. Major museums borrow our artifacts. We have become a scholarly resource for the world. I thank you President Sederburg for listening to me -- and giving money. A vision without money is a pipe dream.

George Santayana, the philosopher and poet, wrote: "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." It is uncomfortable to study our mistakes, and there is a part of us that naively says, "If only we stop talking about racism the problem will go away." It won't, trust me. We should never stop talking about race and racism, but we must always look for new, creative, and productive ways to discuss it. I believe that Americans -- Blacks, Whites, Reds, Browns, and Yellows -- want to talk about racism; indeed, they need to talk openly and honestly about race and racism. They are afraid. Whites are afraid they will "say the wrong thing," and be called bigoted. Americans of color are afraid they will sound angry, bitter, lost and locked in the past. It is okay to be afraid.

The Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum has been the subject of cover stories in The Detroit Free Press, The Houston Chronicle, and several magazines. We have been mentioned in televised documentaries. We have received national awards, including a small NEH grant; however, recognition is not my goal, nor is it the goal of the museum. From the start, I wanted to create a room that would change the way its visitors talked about race -- a room where Ferris State University students, teachers, and staff learned to think deeply about race and race relations. The Southern Poverty Law Center, Tolerance.Org., and Healing Racism, are among the many civil rights and human rights organizations which use us as a resource. It may sound trite and self-important, but we want to change the world, to build upon the work of Dr. Martin Luther King -- to help usher in the day when skin color limits no one.

No, national and international recognition was not and is not our driving force; nevertheless, I see a day coming, and not too far away, when scholars and politicians from around the world will travel to Big Rapids, Michigan to discuss race relations. I see a day when professors at Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, and the school in Ann Arbor, will ask "What's going on at Ferris State University this semester?" Dozens of professors throughout the nation have already rewritten their course syllabi to include the Jim Crow Museum Web site. We will be a world leader in addressing issues relating to race -- and eventually issues related to sexism and classism. This is not a dream; this is a goal, a realistic, soon-to-be realized goal. We will achieve this goal because it is the right thing to do and we are the right people to do it.

Sometimes I wish I had been born into a family of great wealth. It is humbling to ask others for money, even when the money is for a noble cause. Were I rich I would write the checks necessary to build the new museum, to outfit it with the latest technological gadgets, to hire a director. I would build traveling exhibitions to take the museum's message across the nation. But I am not wealthy, not with money. My opulence is with ideas, with hope. That will have to do.

Again, I thank the Ferris Foundation for its help. Please know that we are good stewards with other people's money.

David Pilgrim, Curator
Jim Crow Museum
Date posted: April 20, 2006


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