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The Detroit News


Exhibit on racism stuns visitors

Howell display of 'Hateful Things' draws steady crowd to Opera House on King holiday.

Valerie Olander / The Detroit News

January 17, 2006

While some communities marched in unity and featured noted speakers to keep the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream alive, a slow, steady crowd filed into the Howell Opera House.

They came to see Little Black Sambo books and games, Tom, the happy, submissive servant to Cream of Wheat advertisements from the 1930s, and restaurant menus and logos from The Coon Chicken Inn, which operated in the West from the 1920s to 1950s.

"Shocking" was the word most often used by patrons on the second day of an exhibit brought to the community by the Livingston 2001 Diversity Council.

"Hateful Things -- Objects from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia" from Ferris State University shows the history of racism through images from the late 1800s to the present.

Some remembered the signs used to separate water fountains and bathrooms for "Whites Only" and "Coloreds" and another placard seemed familiar from the same time period: "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."

"This is so embarrassing," said Linda Heard, who came of age in the 1960s and spent her day off from her job at the state Senate Democratic Party office to view the traveling exhibit.

"On one hand, you look at all this and think, 'we've come a long way' and then on the other, you see it still exists in many forms."

Aaron Smith, 23, a Fowlerville senior attending Ferris, had never seen the Jim Crow museum on campus so he decided to stop in Howell with his parents and wife during his day off from school. His wife, Alita, from Hungary, was disturbed by what she saw.

"We learned about this in (Europe), but not this deep. I knew about Rosa Parks and people having to sit at the back of the bus. We hardly saw any pictures, nothing like this," she said.

During the first hour Monday, 72 people came to see the collection compared to the 54 who came on opening day, said Pat Convery, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

"It seems like it's being well-received. Of course, we didn't know what to expect," said Vic Lopez, president of the diversity committee.

The group has been in existence for nearly 20 years attempting to shed the city's image as a haven for racists. Robert Miles, the late grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, once lived in neighboring Cohoctah Township. Last year, a planned auction of a Klansman's robe on the King national holiday touched off bitter protests at a downtown business and unearthed local history.

This year, the Diversity Council was hoping to offer some healing through the exhibit. Some view the collection of hateful memorabilia as an educational tool. Others said it focused on the negative.

School groups are expected to tour the traveling museum, although interest, so far, has been minimal.

You can reach Valerie Olander at (517) 552-5503 or volander@detnews.com.