Keeping Jim Crow Alive: A Ferris State University Museum Aims to Use the Pain of Racist and Offensive Material to Educate and Foster Racial Healing

Article excerpt

The pop-eyed, overweight and scarf-clad mammy. The silly, shiftless Sambo. They are a few of the ugly stereotypical images of Black Americans that many U.S. citizens--of all races--want to forget.

But Dr. David Pilgrim won't let them. Pilgrim is curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. It is a place where--for many people--history hurts. The museum houses about 5,000 items including posters depicting drawings of alligators poised to devour naked Black babies, "for Whites only" signs and restaurant signs which read "No Dogs, Niggers, or Mexicans," and graphic depictions of lynch mobs celebrating around one of their Black victims.

Across the nation a handful of other museums, including Milwaukee's Black Holocaust museum, showcase offensive or racist memorabilia. Most have material dating back to when Africans first arrived in America on slave ships.

"The difference is that we started at Jim Crow--not at slavery--and we never stopped collecting items," Pilgrim says. "Every piece that we have is still being made and is still being sold today."

Some of it can be found at Internet auction houses such as eBay, he says. Others can be purchased privately from individuals who have had growing collections for decades.

The Jim Crow museum has become a must-see for many educators and researchers examining the African American experience in the United States. Since it opened in 1995, more than 3,000 visitors have traveled to the Fen-is campus to visit the museum and another 80,000 have accessed the museum's Web site.

Pilgrim, who also is a sociology professor at Ferris, says some Black people have cried after visiting the museum. Some Whites, after seeing the vast collection have apologized on the spot to Pilgrim, who is Black. Critics have left saying that while the artifacts are hurtful, the museum exaggerates their significance and that displaying them globally on the Internet will do nothing to foster racial healing.

Pilgrim says the goal of the museum is not to trigger tears or anger, or to jar people into deep feelings of guilt. It is to broaden the dialogue about race in America, he says.

"There is still a debate about whether Black people should use this material in any way other than to destroy it, or whether they don't belong in a museum or being resold by Black people," Pilgrim says. "This is high-octane material, but the benefits are also high."

The museum is open to anyone, but appointments for visits are required. There are no walk-in visitors, and after each visit, guests are encouraged to discuss their feelings and thoughts with other visitors.

PRESERVING THE PAST

The Jim Crow period, which started when segregation rules, laws and customs surfaced after Reconstruction ended in the 1870s, existed until the mid-1960s when the struggle for civil rights in the United States gained national attention.

In the 1830s, Thomas Rice, a White actor, helped fuel the belief among many Whites that Blacks were subhuman, lazy and stupid. Rice painted his face black with burnt cork and performed his song "Jim Crow." Soon after that, minstrel shows gained widespread international acceptance. It was commonplace to see Black people mocked as uneducated and irrational. The shows peaked in the 1850s and interest in them faded in the 1870s, just as Jim Crow laws were surfacing, Pilgrim says.

But racist depictions of Black people persisted. In films, White actors dressed in blackface, mocking Blacks, and White people portrayed Blacks on shows such as "Amos `n' Andy," often speaking in broken English and acting in nonsensical ways.

One goal of the museum is to remind visitors "They (students) are sobered by what they see. …