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DESIREE COOPER: Howell trying to change reputation as racist city

BY DESIREE COOPER
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

January 17, 2006

If you go

The "Hateful Things" exhibit:


Where: Howell Opera House, 123 W. Grand River


When: Through Sunday, 3-8 p.m. weekdays, noon-4 p.m. weekends.


How much: Free, not recommended for young children.


For more information: Call 734-878-2112 to schedule group visits.

Things have quieted down in Howell since last year, when the Ole' Gray Nash Auction Gallery planned to auction racist memorabilia -- including a Ku Klux Klan robe -- during the Martin Luther King Day weekend. After days of media coverage and controversy, owner Gary Gray decided to move the auction date, but not before more than a dozen more Klan robes surfaced for sale.

"It was a nightmare," said Pat Convery, president of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce. "In the past, when the media descended upon Howell, we just ignored it. But this time, we decided to be proactive."

Acting affirmatively

The fiasco reinvigorated the Livingston 2001 Diversity Council, which has met quietly for years. Council members bought one of the auctioned Klan robes. They discussed publicly burning it, but didn't, lest they invoke images of Klan cross burnings.

Instead, the group donated it to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. The museum was started in 1995 by African-American professor David Pilgrim, and is home to more than 4,000 artifacts of racist images from American popular culture.

On Saturday, as a symbol of how far the community has come in one year, a 39-piece, traveling exhibition from the museum opened in downtown Howell. The weeklong exhibit kicks off a series of community dialogues on race sponsored by the council.

"Like most all-white communities, we have to work to counteract the perception that we are unprogressive and unwelcoming," said Convery.

Facing racism

The Jim Crow Museum was established from Pilgrim's private collection. It puts into scholarly context the racist images from popular culture from the 19th Century to the present, including pictures from the 1930s referring to black children as alligator bait, to the more recent "Ghettopoly" board game.

"Some think of this as African-American history," said John Thorp, social sciences department head and museum administrator. "But these images came from the white imagination. They were created by white people and consumed by white people. It's our history."

I was one of those journalists who descended upon Howell last year to write about the auction. But I think that the bigger story has happened over the ensuing year. When confronted with the issue of racism, an all-white community didn't flinch -- it rolled up its sleeves and came up with concrete ways to address the legacy of race.

If that doesn't deserve a headline, I don't know what does.

Contact DESIREE COOPER at 313-222-6625 or dcooper@freepress.com.

Copyright 2005 Detroit Free Press Inc.