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article imageInside the new $1.3 million Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

By JohnThomas Didymus     Apr 20, 2012 in Arts
Exhibits at a new museum, the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Michigan, are attracting visitors. The museum says it has the largest collection of artifacts spanning the segregation era, from Reconstruction until the civil rights movement.
According to David Pilgrim, African-American, founder and curator of the museum, who began collecting the items on display as a teenager in the 1970s, the museum exhibition at the Ferris State University is "is all about teaching, not a shrine to racism." He explained that the goal of the $1.3 million gallery is "to get people to think deeply."
The term "Jim Crow" in the name of the museum, is believed to have originated in "Jump Jim Crow," a song-and-dance caricature of African-Americans performed by Thomas D. Rice in "blackface." The term "Jim Crow" became a pejorative expression meaning "Negro" by the mid nineteenth century and when the laws of racial segregation were enacted they became known as "Jim Crow laws.".
David Pilgrim is a former sociology professor at Ferris State. He started the collection now displayed at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in the 1970s in Alabama. He explains that during his years of collecting the items on display, he "spent more time in antique and flea markets than the people who work there." He says that his quest for more relevant items continues. Pilgrim said: "At some point, the collecting becomes the thing. It became the way I relaxed."
Daily Mail reports Pilgrim donated his 2,000-piece collection to the school in 1996, after he concluded it "needed a real home." For 15 years, the collection was kept in a room where visitors could see it only by appointment. But with financial assistance of the university and donors, Pilgrim's collection finally acquired a permanent home and a grand opening ceremony of the new museum comes on April 26.
The museum now has about 9.000 items that show past and present depiction of African-Americans in stereotypical ways, with many encouraging and glorifying violence against them. The items show how racism dominated American culture for decades.
When asked about his observations on how visitors react to the items on display, Pilgrim said some visitors leave angry and offended while others feel a "reflective sadness." For many, the displays are startling — the profusion of the "n-word" and the stereotypical depiction of the African-American male as lazy, indolent, violent and inarticulate; black women as kerchief-wearing mammies or as "sexually charged Jezebels."
Salt Lake Tribune reports that Nancy Mettlach, a student conduct specialist at Ferris, said: "There's parts in that room -the main room - where it's quite gut-wrenching. And the thought that was going through my mind was: 'How can one human being do this to another human being?'"
Nehemiah Israel, a Ferris State Sophomore, said he was deeply disturbed by the items showing racist depiction of President Barack Obama. According to Daily Mail, there is a T-shirt on display that reads: "Any White Guy 2012." Another shirt showing a cartoon monkey holding a banana says: "Obama '08." A mouse pad caricature shows Ku Klux Klan members chasing Obama with the caption "Run Obama Run." Israel's reaction was: "Wow. People still think this. This is crazy."
One of the even more shocking items on display is a full size replica of a tree with a lynching noose hanging from it.
But Pilgrim says such reactions are not sufficient. He said that if the museum "stayed at that, then we failed." He said: "The only real value of the museum has ever been to really engage people in a dialogue."
To encourage the dialogue Pilgrim envisions, the museum's last stop is a "room of dialogue" where visitors are encouraged to talk about what they have seen and how the experience could be used to promote racial tolerance and social justice.
Pilgrim said most of the items on display in the museum are "are anti-black caricatures, everyday objects or they are segregationist memorabilia." According to him, by their nature, they are fit only for two places, "a garbage can or a museum."
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