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Artifacts of an ugly past

Published February 23, 2005

Museum displays racist memorabilia as education tool

Matthew Miller | NOISE

Ask David Pilgrim the right way to deal with racism, he may well answer with a quote from an early version of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

King wrote that racial tension had to be brought "out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light."

Pilgrim calls it "an ugly metaphor." But it's an apt metaphor for what he's spent the better part of his life doing.

Pilgrim is a professor of sociology at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. He's also the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery on Ferris State's campus.

He is a collector of racist artifacts: clown-lipped pickaninny figurines chomping on slices of watermelon, games such as Alabama Coon and Darkey Five Pins, pictures of black children with labels like "alligator bait," a plethora of mammy figurines, racist advertisements, golliwog dolls, even a Ku Klux Klan robe acquired this month at an auction in Howell.

Most of these objects are old, relics of another era. Many of them, though, are new. And, in the single room that houses the museum, they are all together, a shocking, visceral testimony to the ordinariness and vileness of racism against blacks in America.

The purpose of the 5,000-item collection isn't to raise hackles. It's there as an academic resource, a teaching tool. But it would be a mistake to say it wasn't there as a confrontation of sorts.

"Here we are in a culture where many whites are afraid to talk about race for fear of being called racists," Pilgrim said. "Many blacks are afraid for fear of being called angry. So I'm thinking, we need to create a space where they have to talk about race.

"Here, we have some of the deepest discussions about race of any place I've been. And one of the reasons is you can't hide."

Pilgrim, who is part black and part Chickasaw Indian, began his collecting career with confrontation. Barely a teenager, he found a mammy figurine at a flea market in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. and he found it ugly. He bought it and smashed it in front of the man who'd sold it to him.

It wasn't the last such object he'd smash. But, somewhere along the line, it occurred to him that such objects had value, educational value, if nothing else. As an undergraduate, he began building his collection in earnest.

He remembers the day it occurred to him to turn his collection into a museum. He'd become friends with an antique dealer near Ferris State, an older black woman who owned a collection of racist objects that she would not let Pilgrim see. Until, one day in 1990, she did.

"From floor to ceiling were the most horrific images of black people I have ever seen in my life," he said. "It was the first time I thought 'This is propaganda.' I thought, 'I need to create the feeling in others that I have standing in this room. Except I also need to contextualize it.'"

Creating that feeling in others seems to be the simple part. Phil Middleton, a black professor of literature at Ferris State, said, the first time he saw Pilgrim's collection, his reaction was near overwhelming.

"I hated it. I really hated it. I thought that such relics should be destroyed and I told him I would destroy them for him, but he said no."

Building a lesson out of such ugliness can be more of a challenge. Pilgrim said many museum visitors don't know a great deal about America's racist past.

In particular, they don't know much about the Jim Crow period, a time of segregation laws, of discriminatory rules and customs, that ran from the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s until the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in the mid-1960s.

Pilgrim wants them to see how these artifacts weren't just expressions of that era's racism, but that they helped to feed and perpetuate it, as well.

"Images matter," he said. "They both shape and reflect. When people come in here, I don't do a lot of talking in terms of telling. I answer questions and I ask questions. 'What does this mean? If all you knew about black people was what you could glean from this image, what would you think of black people?'"

He also wants them to understand that the sort of racist imagery on display in the museum -- and the racist attitudes it reflects -- haven't disappeared from our culture.

There's still a thriving trade in racist antiques, he said. The more racist an item, the more valuable it usually is.

Many companies have also begun producing replicas of old racist images (he points out a clock with an advertisement for "N----- Head Oysters" on it, a reproduction of an ad for Little African Licorice Drops showing a black child being stalked by an alligator).

And there are new racist items, new racist images, popping up all the time (he produces a plastic alligator cookie jar, purchased a couple of years ago at Meijer. When the mouth is opened, it says "Hmm, hmm, dese sho is some tasty cookies").

Talking about racism in such an immediate sense puts Pilgrim in territory few museums will touch. Tim Chester, director of the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, said his museum has thousands of racist objects. They keep them in storage.

"Objects that are harmful to others or are racist or were created with evil intent should never be displayed lightly or in a context where people can misconstrue the message," he said.

The Jim Crow Museum takes great pains to prevent that. Visitors are required to watch one of two documentaries on racial issues before entering the museum and are accompanied at all times by someone who can put the items into context.

That will change when the museum moves into a larger, more public space on Ferris State's campus, probably next year. The exact timing depends on the museum's fund-raising efforts.

When the new space opens, Pilgrim wants to hold a summit with diversity groups from across the state "so they can get together and start reinventing the wheel."

He considers himself an activist and the museum both an academic and activist venture.

"But I leave it up to people to decide where they need to go," he said. "I do wish they'd go somewhere and do something."