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Collector of 'racist garbage' brings exhibit to Milwaukee museum

By Phyllis Sides (June 19, 2006)

America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee is known for the disturbing and ugly images of American life it displays.

A traveling exhibit, "Hateful Things: Objects from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery," is the newest example to stop at the museum founded by the late James Cameron in 1988. Cameron died June 11. He was 92.

The Jim Crow exhibit runs through Aug. 26.

"Hateful Things" is one of two traveling exhibits of racists objects from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. The other exhibit, "Them: Images of Separation," deals with hurtful objects aimed at other racial and ethnic groups, women and gays.

Sociology professor David Pilgrim is director of the Jim Crow Museum. He also is its primary donor and curator.

In the pamphlet that accompanies the exhibit, Pilgrim says, "I am a garbage collector, racist garbage. For three decades I have collected items that defame and belittle Africans and their American descendants. I have a parlor game, `72 Pictured Party Stunts,' from the 1930s. One of the game's cards instructs players to, `Go through the motions of a colored boy eating watermelon.' The card shows a dark black boy, with bulging eyes and blood red lips, eating a watermelon as large as he is. The card offends me, but I collected it and 4,000 similar items that portray blacks as Coons, Toms, Sambos, Mammies, Picaninnies, and other dehumanizing racial caricatures. I collect this garbage because I believe, and know to be true, that items of intolerance can be used to teach tolerance."

Recently Pilgrim talked with The Journal Times about the Jim Crow Museum.

What is the Jim Crow Museum's objective? Our goal is to use objects of intolerance to teach tolerance. We want to create meaningful, honest, and open dialogues about race and racism.

What are the some the most egregious examples of early racist memorabilia in the collection? The piece that offends me the most - and this is, of course, personal - is a 1921 advertisement which shows a softly caricatured African-American child drinking ink. The caption reads "Nigger Milk." I am very protective of my children and to see hatred - especially matter-of-fact, casual hatred - directed toward that child is upsetting.

What are the some the most egregious examples of current racist memorabilia in the collection? The video tape "Ghetto Brawls" is very popular and portrays African-Americans as menacing brutes. It is hard to watch.

Who creates these type of images and products? The producers, distributors, sellers, and buyers of this material are many and varied; most do not consider themselves racist.

Where can they be found? Racist objects can be found easily via Internet auction houses such as Ebay and Yahoo! But I also have bought many objects from flea markets and antique stores. I have bought racially offensive objects from many well-known stores. Recently, I purchased a racially offensive mask from Halloween USA, for example.

Who collects these objects and why? Some people collect to remove the objects from the market; some collect to use the objects to teach others about racism; some collect as an investment - they hope to make money; others collect because they support the ideas; again, there are many reasons.

Why are images and perceptions important? Images both shape and reflect values. If all you knew about African-Americans was what you saw on the video "Ghetto Brawls," would you want them to live in your neighbor, hold a position of authority, etc.

Why is what you're doing important? We must never stop talking about race and racism. What I am doing is creating a way that motivates people - no, mandates - that people talk about race in a thoughtful way. I don't want to live in a country where people can't sell racist garbage, but I do want to live in a country where no one buys it.