The Houston Chronicle, Feb. 17, 2002

                                                                             

He's a Pilgrim in Jim Crow Collectibles

By: Renee Kientz

 

David Pilgrim, 43, remembers the first piece of black memorabilia he ever bought.
He was barely a teen-ager, growing up in Mobile, Ala. He came across a small
mammy figurine, bought it and smashed it to bits.

 

He repeated that pattern for a number of years. But gradually, he says, he

came to realize that the stereotypical, insulting objects, even - maybe

especially - the most derogatory of them, had value. Not as collectibles per

se, but as historical artifacts and educational tools.

 

Now Pilgrim is a sociology professor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids,

Mich., and founder/curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia on its

campus. More of a teaching laboratory than a true museum, it holds Pilgrim's

4,000-piece collection of objects created in the Jim Crow era, roughly the

mid-1870s to 1960s, when so-called Jim Crow laws were designed to prevent

blacks from voting and achieving equality.

 

Part of Pilgrim's motivation in creating the museum was to get the items out

of the house. He's a father who didn't want his children exposed to the

stereotypes and virulence of many of the objects. In much the same way, the

museum attempts to prepare visitors by providing perspective and intellectual

inoculation.

 

An appointment is required to view the collection. Because of the emotionally

charged content of the room, visitors are shown Marlon Riggs' Emmy-winning

Ethnic Notions, a documentary about American race relations, then accompanied

through the exhibit by a trained facilitator.

 

"It's about historical continuum," Pilgrim says. "A student finding a racist

ashtray, without perspective, he might say: `It's not offensive. It's just

funny. Lighten up.' We try to show them that something can be offensive and

funny."

 

Though Pilgrim says he collects everything, including "what other people would

call positive items," he has chosen not to include them in the museum. People

see them and want to say, "See? There were a lot of good things made, too."

That, he says, is misleading and beside the point.

 

It bothers him that some black museums pack the Jim Crow material away. "They

put the negative stuff in the basement. They even sanitize slavery."

 

It bothers him, too, that people profit from its sale.

 

"I get e-mails from blacks who say: `You're doing a wonderful job. Can you

appraise this piece for me? I want to sell it.' No, I cannot do that for you.

 

"I'm not interested in making money out of this. I'm interested in teaching

people about race and how to do better."

For that reason, Pilgrim says, he didn't sell his collection to Ferris State

but donated it. "When I think about those items, they don't belong in

someone's living room, in a cupboard without commentary. They either belong in

a garbage can or in a laboratory, much as - how do I say this? - like a

disease, something isolated and examined under controlled conditions.

 

"I've got a card, a photograph of a black man being whipped. I could sell it

for $200. But where should this piece be?"

 

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2002 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspapers Partnership, LP