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He's a Pilgrim in Jim Crow Collectibles

The Houston Chronicle, Feb. 17, 2002

By: Renee Kientz

David Pilgrim, 43, remembers the first piece of black memorabilia he ever bought. He was barely a teen-ager, growing up in Mobile, Ala. He came across a small mammy figurine, bought it and smashed it to bits.

He repeated that pattern for a number of years. But gradually, he says, he came to realize that the stereotypical, insulting objects, even - maybe especially - the most derogatory of them, had value. Not as collectibles per se, but as historical artifacts and educational tools.

Now Pilgrim is a sociology professor at FerrisStateUniversity in Big Rapids, Mich., and founder/curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery on its campus. More of a teaching laboratory than a true museum, it holds Pilgrim's 4,000-piece collection of objects created in the Jim Crow era, roughly the mid-1870s to 1960s, when so-called Jim Crow laws were designed to prevent blacks from voting and achieving equality.

Part of Pilgrim's motivation in creating the museum was to get the items out of the house. He's a father who didn't want his children exposed to the stereotypes and virulence of many of the objects. In much the same way, the museum attempts to prepare visitors by providing perspective and intellectua inoculation. An appointment is required to view the collection. Because of the emotionally charged content of the room, visitors are shown Marlon Riggs' Emmy-winning Ethnic Notions, a documentary about American race relations, then accompanied through the exhibit by a trained facilitator.

"It's about historical continuum," Pilgrim says. "A student finding a racist ashtray, without perspective, he might say: `It's not offensive. It's just funny. Lighten up.' We try to show them that something can be offensive and funny."

Though Pilgrim says he collects everything, including "what other people would call positive items," he has chosen not to include them in the museum. People see them and want to say, "See? There were a lot of good things made, too." That, he says, is misleading and beside the point.

It bothers him that some black museums pack the Jim Crow material away. "They put the negative stuff in the basement. They even sanitize slavery."

It bothers him, too, that people profit from its sale. "I get e-mails from blacks who say: `You're doing a wonderful job. Can you appraise this piece for me? I want to sell it.' No, I cannot do that for you.

"I'm not interested in making money out of this. I'm interested in teaching people about race and how to do better." For that reason, Pilgrim says, he didn't sell his collection to FerrisState but donated it. "When I think about those items, they don't belong in someone's living room, in a cupboard without commentary. They either belong in a garbage can or in a laboratory, much as - how do I say this? - like a disease, something isolated and examined under controlled conditions.

"I've got a card, a photograph of a black man being whipped. I could sell it for $200. But where should this piece be?"

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2002 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspapers Partnership, LP