Question of the Month
Why Focus On Negative Images?
Q: Why Is It That You Only Focus On Negative Images?
-- Gene Berriens, Springfield, Illinois
A: The official name of the museum is The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia; obviously, many of these objects will be clearly racist and negative. Negative images will always be central to the museum and its mission: to use items of intolerance to teach tolerance. However, a campaign is underway to move the museum into a much larger space. Once moved, the Jim Crow Museum will be able to tell six stories, at least three of which may be viewed as positive stories. Below is a brief description of the stories that will be told in the new museum.
What was Jim Crow?
The visitor to the new Jim Crow Museum will first encounter panels that discuss the minstrel performer, Thomas Rice, and the stage character that he popularized: Jim Crow. The visitor will learn how Jim Crow became a name for the racial caste system that operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and Border States, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-Black racism.
Jim Crow states passed statutes severely regulating social interactions between the races. Jim Crow signs were placed above water fountains, door entrances and exits, and in front of public facilities. There were separate hospitals for Blacks and Whites, separate prisons, separate public and private schools, separate churches, separate cemeteries, separate public restrooms, and separate public accommodations. In most instances, the Black facilities were grossly inferior -- generally, older, less well kept. In other cases, there were no Black facilities -- no Colored public restroom, no public beach, no place to sit or eat. The JCM will include segregation signs, a "Whites Only" water fountain, a "Colored" water fountain, and other segregation memorabilia.
Jim Crow and Violence
The Jim Crow laws and system of etiquette were under girded by violence, real and threatened. Blacks who violated Jim Crow norms, for example, drinking from the White water fountain or trying to vote, risked their homes, their jobs, even their lives. Whites could physically beat Blacks with impunity. Blacks had little legal recourse against these assaults because the Jim Crow criminal justice system was all White: police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and prison officials. Violence was instrumental for Jim Crow. It was a method of social control. The most extreme forms of Jim Crow violence were lynchings.
The JCM will show how violence against African Americans permeated this society. There will be Ku Klux Klan objects and a lynching display; however, most of the artifacts in this section will be everyday items, for example, games that involve pitching, tossing, and hitting Africans and African Americans.
Jim Crow and Caricatures
All racial and ethnic groups have been caricatured, but no racial group has been caricatured as often in as many ways as have Africans and their American descendants. From slavery to the present, Blacks have been caricatured in ways that justify their political, social, and economic oppression. Blacks have been portrayed in popular culture as pitiable exotics, cannibalistic savages, hypersexual deviants, childlike buffoons, obedient servants, self-loathing victims, and menaces to society. These anti-Black depictions were routinely manifested in or on material objects: ashtrays, drinking glasses, banks, games, fishing lures, detergent boxes, and other everyday items. These objects, with racist representations, both reflected and shaped attitudes towards African Americans.
The JCM will display hundreds of items that caricature African Americans. The visitor will see a "kitchen" filled with racist portrayals of Blacks on detergent boxes, syrup containers, wall decorations, and so forth. A living room mantle will be covered with "Mammy" objects, a Christmas tree surrounded by anti-Black presents, and walls with be covered with paintings, prints, and sheet music that portray Blacks as Toms, Coons, Sambos, Mammies, and Brutes. The goal is to show the everyday nature of racism during the Jim Crow period.
African Americans Achievements
The caricaturing and stereotyping of African Americans as lazy, dangerous, childlike parasites buttressed the view that Blacks were unfit to attend racially integrated schools, work in responsible jobs, live near Whites, vote, serve on juries, and hold public offices. These negative characterizations of Blacks were incongruent with the many accomplishments of Black researchers, inventors, physicians, writers, athletes, and scientists. Unfortunately, many of the accomplishments of Jim Crow era Blacks were ignored or trivialized by the larger White society.
The JCM will highlight Black high achievers with murals, descriptive panels, and a kiosk with voice. The focus will be on those Blacks who achieved in non-civil rights areas, especially, science, business, medicine, literature and the arts. The visitor to the JCM will see inventions by African Americans.
Death of Jim Crow
The Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), ruled segregated schools unconstitutional. This hastened the end of legal segregation, but it did not end it, as evidenced by the need for the Civil Rights Movement. Whites, especially northerners, were confronted with images of Black protestors being beaten by police officers, attacked by police dogs, and arrested-for trying to vote, eat at "White" lunch counters, and attend "White" schools. The Civil Rights Movement was, in effect, a direct attack on the racial hierarchy known as Jim Crow. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, passed after (and maybe because of) President John F. Kennedy's death, was certainly a blow to Jim Crow. One-by-one segregation laws were removed in the 1960s and 1970s.
The JCM will display a large banner of Martin Luther King Jr., and a poster that reads, "I AM A MAN." There will be objects relating to the protests: signs, leaflets, pins, photographs, books, and musical records. Didactic panels will discuss the heroism of civil rights workers, including lesser known individuals and organizations. Civil rights battles were fought on many fronts. This section will include material objects dealing with school desegregation, bussing, affirmative active, and the resurgence of the KKK.
Learning From Our Racial Past
George Santayana (1863-1952), an American philosopher and poet, was right when he said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." American has made remarkable progress toward becoming a more democratic, more just, more moral society. The last section of the new JCM will be a room for reflection, debate, and direction. There will be tier seating in front of a mural of civil rights martyrs. In 2004 there are many anti-racist organizations. Visitors will be exposed to the work of present-day civil rights and human rights workers. Visitors, especially students, will have their anti-racist efforts highlighted: posters, poetry, videotaped public service clips. And, modern manifestations of racism will be examined.
June 2004 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum