Detroit Free Press John Carlisle column
BIG RAPIDS, Mar 10, 2013 (Detroit Free Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The first time he saw a mammy figurine for sale, David Pilgrim bought it, threw it to the ground and stomped it to pieces.
He was only 12 years old. He came across that statue at a flea market in Mobile, Ala., where he grew up.
His gesture wasn't intended to be political; he was too young to reason that way. It was just a gut reaction. "I simply hated it," he said.
But it began an infatuation with such Jim Crow-era depictions of black people, and he began seeking out these artifacts.
Over time, his collection of racist kitsch grew so large it eventually became the core of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids, which opened its doors to the public last year. Nearly 10,000 pieces are included in the museum's exhibits, all connected by a common thread -- they were made to belittle, mock or demean black people during a time of legal and social segregation, from after the Civil War to the mid-1960s.
They add up to a showcase of commercial racism, meant to demonstrate how prevalent such products once were.
From lawns to kitchens
The museum is overwhelming just because of the sheer number of artifacts inside.
Walk in, turn left and there's a sea of mammy figurines and Sambo statuettes. Look to the right and there's a line of black-faced lawn jockeys. Everywhere you turn are depictions of watermelons, nooses and cartoonish figures with bulging eyes and idiotic grins -- the icons and symbols of Jim Crow culture.
Some of it overflows with examples of a particular aspect of Jim Crow products. A whole section is modeled after a 1950s kitchen that's crammed with hundreds of foods, soaps and cookbooks featuring stereotyping words and pictures.
Some of it is stark in its simplicity, like the three mannequins wearing authentic Ku Klux Klan robes. Nearby is a life-size replica of a lynching tree with a noose dangling from a branch.
The effect of all these items massed together stuns many visitors.
"It changes the way that people behave," said museum assistant Lisa Kemmis. "They immediately become somewhat reflective. Sometimes they're angry, sometimes they're scared. I've seen people that are actually frightened to walk in the door."
From knickknacks to museum
Pilgrim, a former sociology professor at Ferris State University and its current vice president for diversity and inclusion, amassed his collection at flea markets and fairs throughout his life -- not only in the Deep South, as some people might expect, but all over the country, including fairs and auctions throughout Michigan.
He'd find a lot of the items displayed on tables, but many were kept hidden by vendors until someone asked whether they were available.
"Some people would say, 'I have something and it's a really cute object' and I'd look at it, and I guess 'cute' is relative because it would be something terrible," he said.
That was back before black memorabilia, as these trinkets are often collectively called, developed into a collector's market. In those days, incredible finds could be bought for a few dollars.
Now, Pilgrim said, it's nearly impossible to find anything cheap because the value of the items has been driven so high.
Within a few years, Pilgrim had amassed thousands of trinkets, toys and knickknacks. He created a showroom in his basement for the most stunning examples, while the remainder gradually accumulated in more and more boxes. He said he has no idea how much money he spent buying them over the years.
"I try not to think about it," he said, laughing.
Eventually, Pilgrim thought the public should have a chance to see all this, and he donated nearly 3,000 pieces to Ferris State in 1996.
At first, they were housed in a small room where private tours were offered by appointment only. But the demand was so great and the collection was so big that the university soon invested $1.3 million in a winding museum inside the school library.
As word spread of its existence, the museum began receiving donations from around the world, which more than tripled the collection's original size.
Besides the displays, the museum has a website featuring essays on the history behind them, as well as a video room where videos about the Jim Crow era and the products it spawned are shown. It's a space big enough for classes and tours to meet in.
Pilgrim said he wants the museum to spawn dialogue, not serve only as a showcase of offensive curiosities.
"We're not a shrine to racism," he said. "Our whole purpose is as an educational tool."
Not just the past
Turns out, the era needed more explaining than they expected.
Once tours began, both Pilgrim and Kemmis noticed an interesting trend -- many of the high school and college students who visited didn't know much at all about the Jim Crow era. Some didn't believe the system was very widespread, that there was a time when you could make and sell these items without embarrassment or apology.
"It's difficult for them to get a grasp on it," Kemmis said. "They're familiar with the basic concepts, that yeah, you had to ride on the back of the bus and you had the drinking fountain thing, but they don't understand that it's all about every aspect of daily life."
Pilgrim said he has wondered whether that's a sign that the era's hardships have been minimized over the years, or, instead, that the country has come far enough for such a world to seem impossible now.
But then he notes not all the items in the museum are from the past.
One display features memorabilia devoted to President Barack Obama, including a T-shirt modeled exactly on a campaign image, with the word "hope" replaced by the word "rope" and an image of a noose. Another has the president's name with a caricature of a monkey and a banana.
People are still cranking out this kind of material, Pilgrim noted. And there are still people who will happily buy it.
"I asked myself, 'When will the day come when all of this is an introduction and purely a history lesson ' " he said. "But I don't think we're anywhere near being there."
John Carlisle is a columnist who writes about interesting people and places throughout the state. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-6582.
More Details: If you want to go
The mission of the Jim Crow Museum is to use objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice. The museum features six exhibit areas -- Who and What is Jim Crow, Jim Crow Violence, Jim Crow and Anti-Black Imagery, Battling Jim Crow Imagery, Attacking Jim Crow Segregation, and Beyond Jim Crow.
Where: 1010 Campus Drive, Big Rapids.
Hours: Noon-5 p.m. Monday through Friday; group tours by appointment.
Information: Call 231-591-5873, visit www.ferris.edu/jimcrow or e-mail email@example.com.
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