Arts/Culture
3:25 pm
Mon April 23, 2012

Racist artifacts on display at Ferris State's Jim Crow Museum

What was once a private collection of racist memorabilia has now been expanded to a full-blown museum on the campus of Ferris State University.

When sociology professor David Pilgrim came to Ferris State, he brought with him his collection of racist artifacts and donated them to the university. For years the items sat in a small classroom on campus, but are now on display in the new Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

Pilgrim tells The Atlantic about the first racist artifact he bought when he was 12 years old: a the first racist artifact he collected during an interview with The Atlantic: a Mammie saltshaker. According to the article, he bought the saltshaker and then threw it on the ground and shattered it into pieces.

What made you start collecting objects like those to keep instead of destroy?

I went to a historically black college, Jarvis Christian College in Texas, and in addition to teaching the usual math and science, our professors would tell us stories of Jim Crow. One day, one of my professors came into the classroom with a chauffer's cap. He set the hat down and asked what historical significance it had.

Now, the obvious answer was that blacks were denied many opportunities, and chauffeuring was one of the few jobs open to them. But that was not right answer. He told us that a lot of professional middle-class blacks in those days always traveled with a chauffer's hat. The reason: If they were driving a nice new car through a small southern town, they didn't want police officers, or any other whites, to know the car belonged to them.

I remember that story so vividly. No object has any meaning other than what we assign to it. But that was an incredible meaning to assign to an object that, on the surface, had little to do with racism.

The items range from the small: one of the pens President Johnson used to sign the 1964 civil rights act is there; to the very large: a full-sized replica of a lynching tree.  Pilgrim says all of it is designed to provoke discussion:

"Anybody coming into the museum, including an ideological racist, is certainly going to learn some things, and is certainly going to have some of their ideas challenged."

The museum includes exhibits on Jim Crow, anti-black imagery, civil rights, black achievement, and modern racism. One room toward the back of the museum contains a mural with the faces of blacks and whites who were killed during the civil rights movement. Pilgrim calls it the "cloud of witnesses" watching over people as they talk about what they just experienced, and "what it is we as a country should be doing."

Ferris State University will celebrate the grand opening of the new Jim Crow Museum on April 26.