Jim Crow Museum - Frequently Asked Questions

Jim Crow Museum outside

  • The Jim Crow Museum is located on the Lower Level of Ferris State University's FLITE library, in Big Rapids, Michigan. Big Rapids is fifty miles north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Contact the museum at (231) 591-5873, or at [email protected]. Groups of 15 or more are encouraged to schedule prior to arrival to ensure that proper accommodations are made. Please refer to the calendar of events for availability.
  • The museum houses over nine thousand artifacts; the majority of the objects were created between the 1870s and the 1960s. The largest portion of the museum's holdings are items that may be classified as Anti-black Memorabilia-for example, Mammy candles, Nellie fishing lures, Picaninny ashtrays, Sambo masks, Coon toys, and Golliwog marbles. These objects both shaped and reflected attitudes toward African Americans during the Jim Crow era. The museum also displays Jim Crow memorabilia-signs, tickets, brochures, photographs, and books-that promoted segregation. The museum demonstrates how racist ideas and anti-black images dominated American culture. It also shows how these images and ideas have resurfaced in recent years. The museum has "positive" displays, including stories and artifacts about African American achievement and the civil rights movement.

  • It is true that most American groups, especially racial minorities, have been the victims of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination. Japanese Americans, for example, were victims of the Tojo caricature, and Native Americans were often portrayed as savages and drunks. The Jim Crow Museum focuses on anti-black material for these reasons: 1) there are more racist caricatures of blacks than of any other racial or ethnic group -- at least twenty distinct caricatures exist, including, Mammy, Sambo, Golliwog, Jigger, Coon, Savage, Nat, Tragic Mulatto, Picaninny, Buck, and Uncle Tom; 2) blacks remain the largest racial minority group in the United States; 3) many of the nation's most important interracial conflicts (and successes) involved blacks and whites; 4) with the possible exception of Native Americans, no American minority group has been as victimized as have African Americans; and 5) the founder and original donor is African American and his collecting interest is primarily, though not exclusively, material related to black Americans. For the past several years, artifacts defaming women, Poles, Native Americans, Mexicans, Jews, and gay people have been added to the museum's holdings.

  • Absolutely not. The purpose of the Jim Crow Museum is to educate visitors about race relations in the United States. Yes, many of the artifacts are offensive; however, we believe that these items must be viewed and understood without sugar coating.The images in the Jim Crow Museum are the same images that are found in college textbooks. A Jim Crow sign, for example, "Whites Only," is an ugly reminder of segregation. Should we not use textbooks that show pictures of this sign in our classes? The same question applies to caricatured images of Blacks that are found in textbooks and documentaries, such as Ethnic Notions.

  • The items are offensive. They were meant to be offensive. They were meant to humiliate. They were used to buttress Jim Crow laws and Jim Crow etiquette. The items in the Jim Crow Museum served to dehumanize Blacks and legitimized patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. The items are offensive, and what they represented (Jim Crow) was offensive.The museum reminds some Blacks, especially middle-aged African Americans, of a time when Blacks were confined to menial jobs, denied entry into White schools, hassled when they tried to vote, crowded into ghettos, and routinely treated with disrespect. In the museum they see postcards with Black children portrayed as "Alligator Bait," Black men depicted as Coons, and Black women portrayed as husband beaters. These images remind them of an America they want, some desperately, to forget.

    We emphasize, during all sessions, that the racist images are caricatures, not accurate depictions. Moreover, they were caricatures with a purpose: to undergird Jim Crow society.

  • The items in the museum are still being sold. More significantly, all of the items in the museum are still being created. Yes! These Jim Crow images are still being created and distributed. Some are created as fake antiques. Some are created as cheap reproductions that do not pretend to be originals. And, some are new racist items which use old Jim Crow images. For example, a 1930s Little Black Sambo tradecard image has been reproduced on mousepads. The image on a 1940s Niggerhead Oysters matchbook cover is now reproduced on a wall clock. Also, new anti-Black caricatures are being created. For example, the museum's holdings include a 1998 grotesque mask marketed as the "Plain Brown Rapper." This caricature of a hiphop musician is also found on magazine covers and tee-shirts. It is as dehumanizing as the 19th Century Sambo caricature.

    How can we forget when old items are sold at premium prices, and new racist items enter the market each day? Go to Ebay or Yahoo and search for auctions with these words: nigger, Sambo, mammy, blackface, lynching, Jim Crow, golliwog, picaninny, and Aunt Jemima.

  • It is inevitable that some visitors find the artifacts upsetting. One of the expressions of their discomfort is the accusation that the museum actually promotes racism. This seems to be an example of blaming the messenger. Neither the founder nor the museum facilitators produced any of the racist artifacts. When these objects are displayed in the Jim Crow Museum they are visual aids for academic analysis and discussion. The museum undermines racist beliefs. The museum indicts racists, not their victims.
  • Jim Crow laws, norms, and etiquette, were themselves negative. They represented a way of life that divided America into two societies: one, White, and advantaged; the other, Black, disadvantaged and despised. The images of Blacks, made by Whites, during the Jim Crow period were, in the main, negative. They had to be. The images were used to reflect and shape the anti-Black attitudes of the period.

    There were positive images of Blacks produced in the past; however, the dominant images of Blacks were negative. Also, many of the positive images were produced by Blacks. The museum attempts to show how racist images permeated America. Racist images were produced by major American companies, including, Disney, Milton Bradley, Life, and Coca-Cola. For most of America's history, positive (or even non-negative) images of Blacks were not normative. Black women were portrayed as Mammies or Nellies; Black men were depicted as Sambos, Coons, or Toms. The museum does include a display case that shows contemporary positive images of African Americans.

    Some Whites who visit the museum feel guilty about the ways that Blacks were treated in the past. This is not the goal of the museum. The major goal of the museum is to deconstruct the racial stereotypes that both reflected and shaped attitudes about Black Americans. This is sometimes painful. We try to create an environment where learning will occur. Before entering the Museum participants master academic material regarding race relations; after the Museum experience they are afforded opportunities to process what they saw. Our goal is to move beyond emotions (guilt and anger) to a deeper understanding of American race relations. We have been successful in most instances.

  • Most of the Ku Klux Klan material was purchased at a public auction in Fremont, Michigan, in 1994. We deliberately deemphasize the Klan portion of our collection because the room focuses on everyday racist items. The KKK did not make the racist fishing lures, ashtrays, toys, postcards, detergent, pencils and other items found in the museum. We believe that a Jim Crow culture serves as fertile ground for the KKK and similar organizations; however, racism is bigger than the Klan. However, when we moved to the larger space the decision was made to create a KKK showcase. Obviously, one cannot accurately and objectively analyze the history of American race relations without discussing the Klan. Moreover, we believe that a Jim Crow culture serves as fertile ground for the KKK and similar organizations.

  • No, it does not. There are many reasons why people collect these contemptible collectibles. Some people, Blacks and Whites, buy these pieces in the hope of reselling them at a huge profit. The prices of these items have escalated in the past two decades. A Sambo clock that sold for $12 in 1975, might sell for $350 in 2000. Some people, mainly Whites, collect because of the nostalgia. We see this with collectors of Mammy cookie jars. Some Blacks collect this material to remind them of America's racist past. There are also those, ourselves included, who have built large collections for educational purposes.

  • The museum teaches different and varied lessons depending on the experiences that visitors bring. However, we try to emphasize these ideas: 1) during the period of Jim Crow, 1877-1965, racist images of Blacks permeated American society as evidenced by the proliferation of anti-Black everyday items; 2) anti-Black caricatured items were used to support anti-Black prejudice and discrimination; and, 3) Jim Crow-like images are still being created and distributed; and, 4) true dialogue, even when painful, is a necessary prerequisite for addressing racial problems.

  • Some unsavory dealers download racist images and place them on tee shirts, posters, mousepads, or other items. We, of course, do not want to facilitate the spreading of racist images, therefore some of the flat pieces were cropped and some of the three dimensional pieces were blurred.

  • Unless stated otherwise, the articles on the Jim Crow Museum Web site were written by Dr. David Pilgrim, professor of sociology at Ferris State University. Dr. Pilgrim is also the primary donor and curator.

  • The museum has many plans, including, 1) expand the fledgling collections related to women and racial and ethnic groups; 2) build a third traveling exhibition; 3) enhance the web presence; and, 4) place the museum into a social justice model.

© Dr. David Pilgrim, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion
Founder of the Jim Crow Museum
Ferris State University