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Relics Of Racism: Big Rapids Museum Lets Its Memorabilia Tell The Ugly Story Of Jim Crow In America

Detroit Free Press (MI)
February 5, 2001
Section: NWS
Page: 1A

Author: Kelley L. Carter Free Press Staff Writer
Dateline: BIG RAPIDS

David Pilgrim David Pilgrim used to destroy items that depict black people in a derogatory light. Now he displays them in a museum at Ferris State to show racism's ugly legacy. Mammies were pictured on household items from wahsing powder to milk jugs to cornmeal. The museum has about 4,000 items.
Photo KIRTHMON F. DOZIER/Detroit Free Press; Graphic MARTHA THIERRY/Detroit Free Press; Photo

Come listen all you galls and boys,
I'm going to sing a little song,

My name is Jim Crow.

Weel about and turn about and do jis so,

Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.

-- Thomas Rice, "Jim Crow"

For the first few minutes of the 2-hour session, the group of professors walks around the small, intimate museum. Some stop and stare, their eyes fixed on some of the more provocative pieces on display.

The showcase is housed in a building at Ferris State University and is a little bigger than a classroom.

A portrait of nine naked black babies is propped on a shelf with the words "Alligator Bait" written below.

Two professors stare at the image. One closes her hand over her mouth.

This is the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, a display of racist material, where signs that proclaim "No Dogs Negroes Mexicans" are on display.

This is a part of the United States' story that professor David Pilgrim doesn't want people to forget.

This is the place where Pilgrim teaches that racism is still alive.

Just weeks before Black History Month, Pilgrim, who specializes in U.S. minorities, walks over to a ceiling-to-floor glass-encased display. He pulls out a bright green, plastic, talking cookie jar in the shape of an alligator. The object usually baffles visitors, so he uses it as an entry point for discussion in today's session.

"When you bring students in here," Pilgrim says to the seven professors, "they may ask about things like this. Here's why this cookie jar, that another colleague bought for me, is in here."

Pilgrim opens the alligator's mouth.

"Hmm, Hmm, dese sho is some tasty cookies."

The professors gasp.

Just steps away from them is a display that shows the correlation between black babies and black men once being marketed as food for alligators and crocodiles.

One licorice candy ad reads, "Little African: A dainty morsel," with an open-mouthed alligator approaching a black baby.

This cookie jar -- manufactured this year -- is reminiscent of another item Pilgrim has in the museum, a 1930s advertisement for Uncle Remus Syrup. A white-bearded black man on the label exclaims "Dis Sho' Am Good!"

It's racist, Pilgrim says. And that's why he has it on display.

Not-so-distant past

Pilgrim, a sociologist, began teaching sessions for university professors in the museum this semester. This year Pilgrim, along with Ferris State Web master Ted Halm, launched the museum's Internet site, which is attracting educators from as far as Norway. He also teaches two undergraduate courses and spends the rest of his time surfing the Web for more material for his museum and writing essays for the museum's Web site,

The Jim Crow period started when segregation laws, rules and customs surfaced after Reconstruction ended in the 1870s, and it existed until the mid-1960s when the struggle for civil rights hit its peak.

In the 1830s, though, Thomas Rice, a white actor, helped popularize the belief that blacks were lazy, stupid and less than human. Rice painted his face black with burnt cork and performed his song "Jim Crow." Minstrel shows flourished in the United States and abroad after that, mocking black people by depicting them as comical, uneducated and irrational. The shows became wildly popular in the 1850s, and enthusiasm for the shows tapered off in the 1870s, just as Jim Crow laws were surfacing.

Those damaging images of black people carried over into motion pictures and radio shows. In films, white actors dressed in blackface, pretending to be black, and on radio, white men played black ones on shows like "Amos 'n' Andy."

Pilgrim has many items that reflect that time period, and he shows how those images are manifested into today's popular culture.

Pilgrim, the curator and founder of the museum -- which he describes as a teaching laboratory -- began collecting the pieces 30 years ago. They include depictions of overweight mammies dressed in plantation wear, caricatures of black men eating watermelon and chicken, Little Black Sambo with bright red lips and clocks from a restaurant called Coon Chicken Inn. The museum has been on campus since 1995.

He would buy the items -- mammies on washing powder boxes; carnival posters and comic books depicting savage-looking black people, and postcards with lynching scenes -- at flea markets, and smash or rip them apart right in front of the person he bought them from. He was an 11-year-old living in Alabama at the time and was angry when he saw these images commonly on display.

For years Pilgrim, who declines to give his age, bought and disposed of racist items.

But as he approached college age, he realized the historical value and significance of the pieces.

He began to collect and save these materials -- children's song lyrics, dolls, cookie jars and T-shirts -- so that when he was challenged by a person who denied racism existed in the United States, Pilgrim could present the evidence.

He studied that evidence as well. Pilgrim received an undergraduate degree in sociology from Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas. In 1981 he began work on a master's and later a PhD at Ohio State University, specializing in the patterns of racism and the cruelty bestowed upon American minorities.

As an academic, he often was invited to talk to various groups and would take individual pieces to the classes or churches where he lectured.

"It got to the point where I was looking for specific pieces based on whatever I was talking about," he says. "The fact that I was giving speeches is what motivated me into doing this. I'd always be a little nervous because some of these people were these genteel, middle-class urbane groups, and then I'd pull out this ugly thing and use it as a visual aid."

After that, the objects went back to his basement, where no one else could see them -- where no one else would be disturbed by them.

A new approach

It wasn't until he did a lecture program for Black History Month 10 years ago at Ferris State that he started rethinking that. He was new on campus and was asked to do a program on some of his pieces.

"I brought like 100 pieces ...and I just remember people being dumbfounded," Pilgrim says. "And that was the first time that I had a lot of pieces in one room. It wasn't even like this picture I bought today, this here is a nasty picture. It's a postcard that has a black guy stripped to his waist being beaten with people in the background laughing at him."

The display caught the attention of university administrators.

And this year, in January, the museum was awarded an Eisenhower grant from the Michigan Department of Education, which helps promote creative teaching and learning in humanities, social sciences and literature in the state. The grant, which the museum received with the help of the Detroit Institute of Arts, will help Pilgrim train high school teachers and DIA tour guides to use the Jim Crow Museum. Teachers from two schools in metro Detroit -- Southfield-Lathrup Senior High School and Bloomfield Hills Middle School -- will participate.

The DIA also is helping catalog the items in the room.

There are more than 4,000 pieces, and he's buying five to 10 more each week. Some objects he buys at Some he finds at flea markets. Others he picks up at local malls. He's donated all of the objects to the university.

Emotional exhibit

"It's too much," Susan Morris, a philosophy professor, tells the group. "Please excuse me if I need to step out of the room."

Morris didn't walk out of the room this time. But she did the first time she came in early January.

"It was loud. I was overcome by the violence and the horror that seemed to be screaming at me," Morris says. "It wasn't that they were just objects. When I stepped in, it felt like they were all screaming at me, like they had a power. Culturally, these things have had an incredible amount of power over the way people think and how people act. I experienced the reality of that power and that's why it was extremely disturbing."

She's not the only one who feels that way. Another professor suggested to Pilgrim that he provide another room so that people can recover from the emotional toll of the exhibit.

The emotion behind the objects is the reason Jim Thorp, Pilgrim's boss and chairman of the university's social science department, was instrumental in finding the display a permanent home. Thorp has known Pilgrim since they were colleagues at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind. He wanted others to see the pieces because in many cases, they can be life-changing.

"The most powerful influence has been on white people who don't pay attention to these kinds of things. People will see something like this in a store and think nothing of it," Thorp says. "But after coming here, you can't dismiss these types of images anymore. When you walk into a store and see some of these things, you have to ask yourself, is it right that these things should be sold in my store, in my town, in 2001? I don't think you can escape the social justice or social activist side of things. Racism is alive and well."

The museum is open to anyone -- Pilgrim has shown educators, ministers and race-relations groups around -- but an appointment is required.

It's not a place where people can just walk in off the street, Pilgrim says. He wants people to be prepared before they enter and have a place where they can discuss some of the images they've seen when they leave.

Let it be shown

Pilgrim has a large display of minstrel show material -- bright red lipstick and dark black paint (which sold for $.10) -- and "Amos 'n' Andy" material -- comic books and tapes from the old radio shows.

Among the minstrel display sits a 1995 copy of New Republic magazine, which depicts a red-lipped cartoonish Gen. Colin Powell made to look like a wind-up doll. The magazine cover sets between a minstrel joke and song book and a package containing large, fake red lips and teeth.

But is Pilgrim being too sensitive? Thorp says no. The images are grotesque, ugly and derogatory, he says.

Pilgrim says that in order to make strides toward racial harmony, the images cannot be ignored.

"I say, let the ugliness be shown, let it all come out, and then you can start the process of healing. I've seen it. I've seen people break down and cry in this room. I'm getting letters from people that want racial counseling," Pilgrim says. "In order to do that, you're going to have some people kicking and screaming, and that's a part of it. I don't know any other way to get around it. The discussion of race relations doesn't have to be ugly. It's that discussion about racism that is often about ugliness."

The ugliness of racist mass marketing.

The ugliness of dehumanization.

The ugly side of U.S. history.

* You can request an appointment at the museum at 231-591-2760 or [email protected].

Contact KELLEY L. CARTER at 313-222-8854 or [email protected].

1828 -- Thomas D. Rice writes the sheet music for ''Jim Crow'' and performs solo skits in blackface across the country.
1838 -- The term ''Jim Crow'' is commonly used as a racial slur for blacks.

1882 -- 49 black Americans are known to have been lynched this year.

1883 -- The Supreme Court overturns the Civil Rights Act of 1875, declaring it unconstitutional. The court declares that the 14th Amendment forbids states, but not citizens, from discriminating.

1896 -- Plessy vs. Ferguson -- The Supreme Court decides on May 18 that separate but equal facilities satisfy 14th Amendment guarantees. This ruling upholds ''Jim Crow'' laws.

1901 -- Booker T. Washington dines at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt, making him the first black American to do so.

-- 105 black Americans are known to have been lynched this year.

1909 -- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is formed.

1913 -- The same year famed slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman dies, President Woodrow Wilson begins a government-wide segregation of work places, rest rooms and lunch rooms.

1914 -- Every southern state has ''Jim Crow'' laws. Many laws focus first on segregating the railroads.

1915 -- D. W. Griffith's ''Birth of a Nation'' -- a silent film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan -- is released. It's still one of the most controversial films of all time because it demeans and dehumanizes black people and says lynchings of them are justified.

1930 -- It's illegal for blacks and whites to play checkers or dominoes together in Birmingham, Ala.

1944 -- Gunnar Myrdal's book ''An American Dilemma'' paints a picture of America under the ''Jim Crow'' laws that makes them a national embarrassment.

1954 -- Brown vs. the Board of Education -- The Supreme Court outlaws federally sanctioned racial segregation in the public schools.

1964 -- Civil Rights Act -- The Supreme Court rules that discriminatory practices are prohibited. This was the result of sit-ins, marches and other forms of nonviolent protests.

1965 -- Voting Rights Act -- The Supreme Court rules that the use of voting laws, practices or procedures that discriminate in either purpose or effect on the basis of race, color or membership in a minority language group is unconstitutional. This legally gave blacks the right to vote.

Compiled by Kelley L. Carter

Copyright (c) 2001 Detroit Free Press
Record Number: 0102050213