Question of the Month:

The New and Expanded Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

November 2011

Q:  I am a Senior Lecturer in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric and in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and I am currently teaching Writing 2-3, which is a first-year research and composition class in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. The way that I have organized my class is to look at the history of the United States and various literary and historical texts and the course is organized around four units of study, one of which is focused on African American experience.

I just wanted to let you know that I am a big fan of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia website and that I have pointed my first-year writing students to it for the past five or six years in Writing 2-3. My students have always found the content and images very interesting, illuminating, and provocative and I wanted to thank you very much for the great work that you have done to make your website so informative and useful for teaching purposes. How is the relocation of the museum progressing?

--Doug Moody, Senior Lecturer
Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, Dartmouth College

A:  The Jim Crow Museum is scheduled to be completed in March 2012. The new location, on the lower level of the Ferris Library for Information, Technology, and Education (FLITE), affords us the space to do the following: host bigger groups, display a larger number of objects, use didactic panels and audiovisual aids to contextualize the artifacts, and, most importantly, tell additional stories.

Visitors will first encounter a pre-museum experience featuring an African American history timeline. The information in the timeline will be enhanced by 10-15 "featured objects," including a copy of the Proclamation ending slavery signed by President Lincoln, vintage sheet music with the lyrics to the song Jump Jim Crow, a 1954 newspaper highlighting the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, and an original campaign poster for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. All of this material will be displayed in enclosed shelving outside of the museum.

Upon entering the museum, visitors will see a re-creation of a desk where minstrel performers "blackened up." They will learn about Thomas Dartmouth Rice, the white actor who popularized the Jim Crow character in the United States and England. There will be didactic panels that discuss how the name Jim Crow became a synonym for the many laws and customs that relegated black Americans to second-class citizenship. During the Jim Crow period 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 — older, smaller, less-well-kept, and less conveniently located. In other cases, there were no black facilities — no Colored public restroom, no public beach, no place to sit or eat.

In the museum will be a large wall containing Jim Crow segregation signs — the back of the wall will be covered with text from dozens of legal statutes. For example, this law from Alabama, my home state, is included, "No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in hospitals, either public or private, in which negro men are placed." The pervasiveness of these Jim Crow laws is apparent when one reads this law from Oklahoma, "The [Conservation] Commission shall have the right to make segregation of the white and colored races as to the exercise of rights of fishing, boating and bathing." An audio with these laws will be activated when visitors enter the section. The voices on this audio were provided by Ferris faculty and staff: Richard Griffin, Department of Social Sciences; Lisa Kemmis, Jim Crow Museum; Jackie Hughes, Faculty Center for Teaching & Learning; and, Joseph "Andy" Karafa, Department of Social Sciences. Franklin Hughes has done excellent work supervising this and other audiovisual projects connected with this project.

Arguably the most difficult-to-stomach section of the new museum will be the section that deals with violence. Visitors will see images of lynching. During the Jim Crow period thousands of blacks were lynched for a variety of accusations, ranging from murder, and rape (often not true), to trying to vote, and arguing with a white man. One of the most unsettling features of the lynchings was their matter-of-fact normalcy. In 1903 a black man was lynched in Greenville, Mississippi. A white writer said, "Everything was very orderly, there was not a shot, but much laughing and hilarious excitement ... It was quite a gala occasion, and as soon as the corpse was cut down all the crowd betook themselves to the park to see a game of baseball." It is clear that lynching was a social control mechanism; and, it is equally clear that the racial hierarchy that was Jim Crow could not have existed without violence and the threat of violence. The showcases in this section will display the tools of violence.

The Coon Chicken Inn was a highly successful restaurant chain from the late 1920s through the 1950s. A grinning, grotesque head of a bald black man with a porter's cap and winking eye formed each restaurant's entry way. In the new museum we will re-create the porter's face and visitors will walk through it as they exit the violence section and enter the sections that deal with black caricatures.

On the other side of the porter's face they will find a kitchen. During the Jim Crow period a typical American kitchen had many products with images that portrayed blacks in negative ways; these included packaging for cereal, syrup, pancake mix, and detergent; salt and pepper shakers; string holders; cookbooks; hand towels; placemats; grocery list reminders; and wall hangings. Any object found in a kitchen could be — and often was — transformed into anti-black propaganda.

In the United States, all racial groups have been caricatured, but none as often or in as many ways as black Americans. 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 routinely took form in material objects: ashtrays, drinking glasses, banks, games, fishing lures, detergent boxes, and other everyday items. The visitor will be confronted by a large case with objects and information about major anti-black caricatures, for example, Mammy, Tom, and Sambo.

As stated earlier, this larger space in FLITE allows us to tell additional stories. One of the sections in the new museum deals with African American artists' attempts to deconstruct racial imagery. I am especially pleased that Jon Onye Lockard's print No More will be included. In 1972, Lockard, an artist, educator, and activist, created the painting as a critique of Aunt Jemima and other commercial mammy imagery. It is a brilliant piece.

During the Jim Crow period, African Americans were confronted by institutional discrimination and acts of individual discrimination, and generally treated as second-class citizens. Nevertheless, blacks made significant contributions that enriched the United States. The achievements of African Americans were realized in all areas; however, the Jim Crow Museum's collection highlights the achievement of African Americans as politicians, military heroes, thinkers, athletes, and musicians. This is another one of the stories that we are now able to tell. And, I must confess that it has been a lot easier to buy these pieces than it was to purchase racist memorabilia.

The new museum will tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement, which began as a grassroots effort and became a national movement to remove Jim Crow laws — and by extension, Jim Crow etiquette, norms, and imagery — from the United States. Although the movement is often linked to its leaders, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, it was really a movement of "regular" black people tired of being denied basic human rights. I am excited to display one of the pens that President Lyndon Baines Johnson used to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in the history of this nation.

As visitors near the finish they will visit a section with tier seating, designed as a space for reflection and dialogue. The wall at their backs will be a mural with the faces of martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., Viola Liuzzo, and the four little girls killed in Sunday School classes in a Birmingham, Alabama church. This mural — entitled the Cloud of Witnesses — will be painted by Jon McDonald, a nationally acclaimed artist from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.

There are many other cool features of the museum, but I will leave some as surprises for visitors. I am confident that this facility will be both a tremendous hands-on academic resource for our students and an incredible resource for the world. A thousand years from now it is likely that racial discrimination will be viewed as a relic of an unenlightened past. Our job is to lay a small tile in that house.

Thank you for your kind and encouraging words. As I mentioned, the Jim Crow Museum should be completed in March 2012; the grand opening will be on April 26, 2012.

Click on the image below for a larger view of the new and expanded Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

New JCM


November 2011 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
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