BIG RAPIDS, Mich. – The objects displayed in Michigan’s newest museum range from the ordinary, such as simple ashtrays and fishing lures, to the grotesque – a full-size replica of a lynching tree. But all are united by a common theme: They are steeped in racism so intense that it makes visitors cringe.
That’s the idea behind the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which says it has amassed the nation’s largest public collection of artifacts spanning the segregation era, from Reconstruction until the civil rights movement, and beyond.
The museum in a gleaming new exhibit hall at Ferris State University “is all about teaching, not a shrine to racism,” said David Pilgrim, the founder and curator who started building the collection as a teenager.
Pilgrim, who is black, makes no apologies for the provocative exhibits. The goal of the $1.3 million gallery, he explained, is “to get people to think deeply.”
The displays are startling. Many items portray black men as lazy, violent or inarticulate. Black women are shown as kerchief-wearing mammies, sexually charged Jezebels or other stereotypes.
The shocking images exact an emotional cost.
“There’s parts in that room – the main room – where it’s quite gut-wrenching,” said Nancy Mettlach, a student conduct specialist at Ferris. “And the thought that was going through my mind was: ‘How can one human being do this to another human being?’ ”
Pilgrim, a former sociology professor at Ferris State, started the collection in the 1970s in Alabama. Along the way, he “spent more time in antique and flea markets than the people who work there.” His quest for more examples was boundless.
“At some point, the collecting becomes the thing,” he said. “It became the way I relaxed.” He spent most of his free time and money on acquisitions.
In 1996, Pilgrim donated his 2,000-piece collection to the school after concluding that it “needed a real home.”
The collection spent the next 15 years housed in a single room and could be seen only by appointment. Thanks to the financial support of the university and donors – notably from the charitable arm of Detroit utility DTE Energy – Pilgrim’s collection now has a permanent home, which will have a grand opening ceremony Thursday. Admission is free.
Today, the school has 9,000 pieces that depict African-Americans in stereotypical ways and, in some cases, glorify violence against them.
Visitors can forget about touring the exhibits and retiring untroubled to a cafe or gift shop. Some leave angry or offended. Most feel a kind of “reflective sadness,” Pilgrim said.
But that’s not enough. 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.”
So Pilgrim designed the tour to give visitors a last stop in a “room of dialogue,” where they’re encouraged to discuss what they’ve seen and how the objects might be used to promote tolerance and social justice.