Jim Crow Museum Promotes
Mich., April 23, 2004
It all started for David Pilgrim with the "mammy" saltshaker.
was toward the end of the Civil Rights era in the early 1970s. Pilgrim, now a
45-year-old sociology professor at Ferris State University, was about 13 when he
came across the dispenser at a flea market in his native Alabama.
years in the United States, particularly in the South, it was common to find
salt and pepper shakers, cookie jars and other kitchen and household items made
to resemble a "mammy" - a stereotypical image of a black heavyset, kerchief- and
apron-wearing housekeeper and nurse maid.
Pilgrim doesn't remember his
exact frame of mind when he impulsively bought the saltshaker. But he vividly
remembers what he ended up doing with it: He smashed it to pieces.
took much better care of the 4,000 or so other related items he acquired over
the years in the name of education. All are now housed at Ferris
State's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which Pilgrim has helped put
together over the past seven years.
(The term "Jim Crow" originated with
a character created in blackface by a white performer named Daddy Rice in the
early 1800s. It later was used as a stereotypical image of blacks and, by the
late 1800s, was associated with racist and segregationist laws.)
museum's mission is to help people understand historical and contemporary racist
expressions and to serve as a resource for civil rights and human rights
"As you consider how they use these materials, it's a
powerful, powerful teaching library in terms of tolerance and understanding for
others," David Eisler, Ferris State's president, says.
Pilgrim gave the
museum his entire collection of racist figurines, T-shirts, comic books,
ashtrays, souvenirs, movie posters and other related items. As its curator, he
now receives a small budget from the university to expand the collection.
"The same way we use sex to sell items today, we used to use race,"
Pilgrim says. "A disproportionate number of items in here are advertising pieces
or had their origins in advertising."
The room's display cases are
filled with startling, offensive anti-black words and images: drawings of
watermelon-devouring black children and bug-eyed, ever-grinning grown-ups; black
men portrayed in cartoons or photos as either thugs or lazy, inarticulate and
easily frightened; women depicted as either mammies or lascivious, scantily clad
"Every group has been caricatured in the United States, but
when you deal with Africans and their American descendants, they've been
caricatured more, more often and, arguably, more viciously," Pilgrim says.
Drawings show young black children sitting at the edge of a swamp, the
words "Alligator Bait" written below them. A tube of "Darkie" toothpaste
featuring a black man in a top hat is displayed next to a later version of the
same product renamed "Darlie," now with a white man in a top hat.
are materials from the Ku Klux Klan, but they aren't given prominence over any
other items because the museum focuses on "everyday racist items," says Pilgrim,
who considers the museum to be a learning laboratory.
He says he has no
problem finding new things to add to the collection at swap meets, art galleries
and online auction spots such as eBay. Many of the items are still being made -
and being passed off as originals - by companies and individuals.
about half the collection can be displayed at one time in the museum's current
quarters, now housed in a room in the Starr Building. A fund-raising drive is
under way to move the museum to a larger, more accessible on-campus location.
The public may visit but there are no set hours of operation because
access is hindered by the location in an academic building.
visitors must make special arrangements through Pilgrim's office or the office
of John Thorp, the museum's director, or be part of a university-approved
academic course, workshop or seminar. A museum guide, often a sociology student,
must be present to discuss the exhibits and answer the questions that inevitably
"For the first time ever, many of them are having a genuine
conversation about race when they're in here," says Thorp, who also heads up
Ferris State's social sciences department.
Tim Chester, director of the
Public Museum of Grand
Rapids, says his institution has thousands of similar items - in storage. He
and his staff have been grappling with how best to use theirs, and some might
find its way into an exhibit on the region's ethnic culture planned for 2006.
Visitors to the two museums have very different expectations, so caution
must be exercised when displaying such artifacts, Chester says.
objects have immense power, and you could put them out in contexts in which they
would mean different things to different people," he says.
and Thorp showed Eisler the museum soon after he became Ferris State's 17th
president last fall, Eisler was fascinated.
"When you enter the museum,
you anticipate some of the things that you're going to see because you
understand what the content is," he says, "but I wasn't prepared for the overall
effect of this. You're really impacted by it."
It has been about two
years since the Rev. John Frye, the teaching pastor at Bella Vista Church in
Rockford, toured the museum with some other members of his church's ministry
staff. He hasn't forgotten the impact it had on him.
"I felt sadness, I
think I felt anger and then I just felt overwhelmed," Frye says. "I did not know
how much racist memorabilia there actually was out there."
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