It’s a collection that’s meant to shock — and it does.
The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, at Michigan’s Ferris State University, is full of artifacts including a tea kettle painted in black face and advertisements espousing racist terminology. It houses thousands of pieces that depict stereotypes of African-Americans from the days of slavery to the 2008 presidential election.
The $1.3 million gallery, set to have its grand opening April 26, stemmed from the personal collection of its curator and vice president of the university's Diversity and Inclusion Office, David Pilgrim, who is black.
“I started collecting when I was a child growing up in Mobile, Alabama. I broke the first piece because it offended me when I was 12 or 13 years old,” said Pilgrim.
It was only later while attending Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, a historically black college that Pilgrim realized the educational power of his collectables. “I thought to myself, well, if I show the objects then it will at least serve as good visual aids when I travel around giving presentations. What started as visual aids evolved into a couple thousand piece collection that I donated to the university, since then we've acquired I think another 7,000 pieces,” he said.
Though the museum’s name includes Jim Crow, referring to laws of segregation that lasted well into the 1960s, the exhibit also includes racist paraphernalia from modern days. Much of it including derogatory depictions of President Barack Obama.
“He is depicted in the most offensive racial ways that you can imagine,” explains Pilgrim. “Sometimes that dialogue is uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have it. This country has for too long been caught up in happy history and celebrating only those parts of history that make us feel good. The reality is this is also part of our history, and quite frankly, just because it offends some people doesn't mean it does not have value or that we as a society that's trying to mature shouldn't deal with it.”
Pilgrim says the public’s feedback about the museum has been largely positive, with most people understanding that these objects represent our history, even if they’re difficult to look at. However, Robert Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity says it’s important to remember just how far the U.S. has come from those days.
“We shouldn’t let the racism of America's past blind us to the enormous progress that the country has made,” said Clegg. “I think that having conversations about race is important, but I think that it’s not the case that Americans don't talk about race. I think we talk about race all the time.”
Is a museum displaying artifacts of shameful stereotypes of African Americans from America’s past a step forward, a reminder of our bias-steeped history, or a step back?
David Pilgrim, curator of the soon-to-open Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan; vice president, Diversity and Inclusion Office, Ferris State University in Michigan
Roger Clegg, president, general counsel, Center for Equal Opportunity