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Jim Crow Museum in the spotlight at annual dinner

Jim Crow Museum in the spotlight at annual dinner

Jim Crow Museum in the Muskegon Chronicle

Saturday, November 11, 2006
By Susan Harrison Wolffis
Chronicle Staff Writer

When he was 12 or maybe 13, David Pilgrim had the uncontrollable urge to buy a salt shaker. But not just any salt shaker.

He bought a Mammy salt shaker -- a caricature of a woman slave made into a salt shaker -- from an antiques dealer in his hometown of Mobile, Ala.

It was small, he remembers, and cheap "because I never had much money."

No matter what the price, the minute the money exchanged hands between the young black child and the white businessman, David Pilgrim threw the salt shaker on the ground, breaking it into a million pieces -- as if that action alone could shatter years of racist attitudes and degradation.

"It was not a political act," Pilgrim writes. "I simply hated it."

That was the last time he destroyed what he describes as a "racist object ... racist garbage." Instead, he started collecting them.

Today Pilgrim, who is a sociology professor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, has more than 4,000 items that he has donated to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery which he founded at the university.

Pilgrim will talk about the museum -- and its mission -- at the Institute for Healing Racism's Annual Celebration Dinner Friday at First Baptist Church in Muskegon.

"Our mission is to promote racial tolerance by helping people understand the historical and contemporary expressions of intolerance," Pilgrim writes on the museum's Web site.

Among the items Pilgrim has collected:

* A parlor game from the 1930s called "72 Pictured Party Stunts" that instructs players to "Go through the motions of a colored boy eating watermelon." The game's card shows a dark black boy with bulging eyes and blood red lips eating a watermelon as large as he is.

* A 1916 magazine advertisement that shows a little black boy, again in caricature, drinking from an ink bottle. The caption reads: "Nigger Milk." Pilgrim bought the print in 1988 from an antique store in LaPorte, Ind., for $20.

Gordon Rinard, executive director of the Institute for Healing Racism, invited Pilgrim to speak at the Institute's annual dinner because he was impressed by Pilgrim's "passion."

"You can feel his passion even in his writing ... and it's hard to write passion into writing," Rinard said.

Pilgrim, who joined Ferris State's faculty in 1990, founded the museum in 1998. Until then, he had kept the objects in his home. He named it the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery to remind people what it was like to live "under Jim Crow segregation ... in a land where every black person was considered inferior to every white one."

"Jim Crow was more than a series of 'Whites Only' signs. It was a way of life that approximated a racial caste system," Pilgrim wrote.

Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enacted between 1876 and 1964 in Southern and border states that required racial segregation in all public facilities. The U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954 in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 annulled all Jim Crow laws, according to Wikipedia -- but Pilgrim said: "This hastened the end of legal segregation, but it did not end it, as evidenced by the need for the Civil Rights Movement."

The work of Pilgrim's museum fosters the kind of conversation encouraged by the Institute for Healing Racism since it was founded in 1998. The Institute's mission statement is "to build a just community in which racism, prejudice, hate and their effects are eliminated."

"It's a message we can't stop telling," Rinard said.

More than 2,000 Muskegon-area people have gone through the Institute's sessions. In the past year, the Institute has set aside its traditional courses offered over a 10-week period and introduced an intensive two-day program "that is more business-friendly," Rinard said.

"Our world has changed. We listened, and we adjusted," Rinard said.

"Host groups" can still schedule the 10-week sessions, he said. More than 400 people have attended the Institute in 2006.

Pilgrim will address "alumni and friends" at the annual dinner, using a power point presentation to guide them through the museum he calls a "teaching laboratory." The museum also includes items created after the Jim Crow period ended.

"Too many students were dismissing racism as a 'thing of the past,' " Pilgrim said.

In 2006, Pilgrim was a consultant to actor Will Smith in his directorial debut in an episode of the UPN television show, "All of Us." The episode is titled "The N-Word."

Pilgrim recently worked with Carrie Weis, the art director at Ferris State, to build a traveling exhibition that focuses on the oppression of women, Mexicans, Jews, Asians and poor whites. Called "Them: Images of Separation," the exhibit opened April 2006 and already is booked for 2007. He also is a consultant to the Public Museum of Grand Rapids' Ethnic History Exhibit.

Pilgrim earned his bachelor's degree from Jarvis Christian College, an historically black college in Hawkins, Texas. He received his master's and doctoral degrees from Ohio State University.

Who was Jim Crow?

In the 1830s, Thomas "Daddy" Rice, a white entertainer, created the minstrel character Jim Crow. This character, performed by Rice in blackface, belittled and helped popularize negative stereotypes of black Americans. The name "Jim Crow" became synonymous with the racial caste system -- often called "Jim Crow laws" -- enacted in Southern and border states from 1877 into the mid-1960s.

Sources: Wikipedia; Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery

Institute for Racial Healing
Address: 571 Apple, Suite 206, in the M Tech Building.
Phone: 720-2105.

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