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Jim Crow Museum Reflects Past/Present Racism

Jim Crow Museum Reflects Past/Present Racism, Via the Web and on Site in Michigan

Special to the Amsterdam News
February 26, 2003

"We're not a museum in the traditional sense," David Pilgrim, curator for the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery, quickly confides. "We treat it like a laboratory. We don't allow children to go in; we have restrictions about that. And in general, we don't let people just go in by themselves.

"They have to go in with a facilitator, someone who's been trained to explain what we have on exhibit here. A lot of people think they know about race and racism," Pilgrim notes, "but they don't.

"With this kind of memorabilia, these things are great visual aids in telling the story I am trying to tell. I see it as such a unique opportunity to teach people about race and racism in an educational setting."

Pilgrim is the founder and curator of a very unconventional museum. Ever since he was a child, the Ferris State University sociology professor says he has been both disgusted and fascinated by the proliferation of anti-Black, Jim Crow images and racial artifacts.

"I hate them, I consider myself a garbage collector," he says about the items he displays, "but it's still important to know about the Jim Crow period. So much of our race relations can be understood based on that period."

"A lot of people don't know what living under Jim Crow was like. But it's relatively easy to go back into history to find out what it meant," Pilgrim said from his museum, which is located in the Starr Building on the campus of FSU in Big Rapids, Mich. "You can take an image like mammy and just think about why it was so embraced by whites and hated by Blacks. What was the political and social climate that produced such an image? And how did it affect how Black and white people lived their lives?"

Pilgrim is the son of former AmNews reporter Eustace "Duke" Pilgrim and was born in Harlem's Metropolitan Hospital. But he was raised in Pritchard, Ala. - just outside of Mobile - and says he grew up at a time when Pritchard's downtown stores still didn't allow Blacks to shop in them. He was a member of the first class to integrate Pritchard's middle school, and prior to that, Pilgrim recalls attending an all-Black school where the teachers really taught Black history and were genuinely interested in courses related to Black people.

In college and graduate school, Pilgrim's interest in Black history increased. He met professors who'd carved out their own specialty niches in the field of Black Studies, and it took him some time to realize that some of the Jim Crow images he'd come across over the years could be used to show how Black people have been oppressed in the United States.

While teaching at the technology-oriented Ferris State University, Pilgrim proposed the creation of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery in 1994. He says he had already gotten invitations from the historically Black, D.C.-based Howard University to set up the museum there, but wanted to propose it at FSU first and give the university the chance to expand their outreach. The school has only now reached a 12 percent Black student population and is still at the initial stages of setting up liberal arts classes. FSU does not have a Black Studies department, but it now offers a minor in Black Studies. To date, FSU's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery has more than 4,000 racist artifacts, including books, ashtrays, masks, toys, matchbooks, salt-and-pepper shakers, postcards depicting lynchings, and dolls. The museum also showcases the way images of the "coon," "tragic mulatto," "mammy," "samba," "jigger," "golliwog," "savage," "Nat," "picaninny," "Buck," "Uncle Tom" and other caricatures were used to depict African-Americans.

At its Web site, which the museum is now promoting as a way to educate the world about how the image of African-Americans was - and still is - decimated in U.S. culture, the history of these racist caricatures and the ways they were used to belittle Blacks and deny their humanity is explained. Physical distortions of Black bodies and stereotypical exaggerations were used, the Web site notes, to maintain one-dimensional roles for African-Americans. Many of these roles - depicting Blacks as thugs, jezebels and brutes - can also be seen in current portrayals by Blacks of other Blacks, Pilgrim also points out. The Web site is also adamant about showing how Jim Crow images are still being produced and utilized today.

But outside of today's Jim Crow-derived media images of African-Americans, there is the growing popularity of some of the more painful aspects of "Black memorabilia." "You can log on to eBay right now, type the word 'nigger' or 'samba' or 'mammy' and you'll find items being sold right now that I could display in this museum," Pilgrim argues.

As of last Friday, Feb. 21, the California-based National Alliance for Positive Action and the owners of the Web site have taken the lead in urging eBay to stop selling such racially offensive items. Although eBay banned the sale of Nazi Germany Third Reich and Ku Klux Klan items back in May 2001, it still permits the sale of "Black memorabilia" and "extreme ethnic" items that often exaggerate the images of African-Americans. Besides eBay, Pilgrim points to the sale of "Talking Alligator Cookie Jars" which, when you open the jar by tilting the alligator's head back, features the voice of an alligator saying, "Mmm Mmm ... them shoo' is some tasty cookies!" Also notable is the "Pimp Daddy - Trash-Talking Doll," which is programmed to utter phrases like "You better make some money, bitch" and "Ooww! You got some nice ass titties, bitch!"

"There is so much money in these things that people are even creating fake vintage items, to fool those who collect them," Pilgrim says, commenting on the eBay controversy. Although he has also collected anti-women, anti-Asian, anti-Indian and anti-Mexican images, Pilgrim contends that anti-Black images have been the most brutal and the most virulent in United States history.

"It's powerful stuff, and it certainly should make people think," he says. "I think you can never understand racism in this country until you understand how deeply whites hated Blacks. And unfortunately, these images were the norm, this was the normal way whites treated Blacks."

Sometimes when he speaks at schools or before community events, Pilgrim says he hears from people who are uncomfortable with recalling racist images of African-Americans. But he's found that those who don't talk about race issues are the people who have the most problems with other races. "So much of our culture is about making people feel good. But people need to grow up! This talk about, 'Well, if we don't talk about it, things will get better.' Those are people who are not out there doing the work. I don't have time for that: Race is too important to me.

"I mean, my life is not a crusade, but it is about helping people to understand."

Pilgrim plans on developing the Jim Crow Museum's Web site so that he can one day teach a course about anti-Black images through it. In the museum itself, he wants to get 6-foot long pictures of everyday African-Americans performing various every day tasks. He wants to be able to end his museum tours by showing the contrast of what stereotypes of Blacks looked like against images of what Blacks really look like--and strive to live like--in their every day lives.

Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery is located in Big Rapids, Mich. For a tour of the museum, contact Lisa Kemmis at (231) 591-5873 or [email protected]