US museum showcases racist artefacts

2012-04-19 13:11

Big Rapids - The objects displayed in the US state of 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 artefacts 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 $1.3m gallery, he explained, is "to get people to think deeply".

The displays are startling. The n-word is prevalent throughout, and 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.

Boundless quest

"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 26 April. Admission is free.

Anti-black images

Today, the school has 9 000 pieces that depict African-Americans in stereotypical ways and, in some cases, glorify violence against them.

Not all of the museum's holdings are on display, but the 325m² space in the lower level of the university library is packed with items that demonstrate how racist ideas and anti-black images dominated American culture for decades.

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.

Some of the objects in the museum are a century old. Others were made as recently as this year.

Run, Obama, Run

Ferris State sophomore Nehemiah Israel was particularly troubled by a series of items about President Barack Obama.

One T-shirt on display reads: "Any White Guy 2012". Another shirt that says "Obama '08" is accompanied by a cartoon monkey holding a banana. A mouse pad shows robe-wearing Ku Klux Klan members chasing an Obama caricature above the words, "Run Obama Run".

"I was like, 'Wow. People still think this. This is crazy'," Israel said.

One of the first rooms in the museum features a full-size replica of a tree with a lynching noose hanging from it. Several feet away, a television screen shows a video of racist images through the years.

The location of the museum - in the shadow of university founder Woodbridge Ferris' statue - also catches some by surprise.

Ferris, who later served as Michigan governor and as a US senator, founded the school more than a century ago. He once said Americans should work to provide an "education for all children, all men and all women".

Garbage can or museum

The mostly white college town of Big Rapids is about 241km miles from Detroit, the state's largest predominantly black city.

Pilgrim, who is also Ferris State's vice president for diversity and inclusion, initially considered giving his collection to a historically black college, but he wanted to be "near it enough to make sure it was taken care of".

Most of the objects "are anti-black caricatures, everyday objects or they are segregationist memorabilia", he said. Because they represent a cruel, inflammatory past, they "should either be in a garbage can or a museum".

  • Felix - 2012-04-19 14:37

    Nice one Pilgrim, we need to face our mistakes and learn to laugh at the misguided past. Not hide away from it.

      Tony Lapson - 2012-04-19 14:41

      I wouldn't say laugh.

      Felix - 2012-04-19 14:42

      I just checked the votes on the front page. *awaits flame attack*

      Preshen - 2012-04-20 10:54

      even had a big bin bag as a connie

  • Jeffrey - 2012-04-19 14:52

    Thus good for memory. learner the past ast on the present and predict the future. meseums, segregative or not are good to present the past. I love that, hands up

  • ludlowdj - 2012-04-19 15:02

    when a white man speaks out in defense of his culture he is immediately classified as a racist by the western world. When a black man does the same thing he is "just protecting" his heritage and culture.

  • timmy.ditsele - 2012-04-19 15:14

    Me thinks we also have to do a museum lke that.......oh we already did,my bad, sorry.But on a serious note i dont think the ANC is doing the right thing by changing all the street names. Simply bcoz they are part of SA no matter what we do history will always be there.Secondly i believe that the comming generations should learn from our past mistakes and say HF Vervoerd have a street name bcoz of what he did in the past was wrong and we as a nation are never going back there. Just to remind the people.Now what they (ANC)are doing is sweeping our history under the carpet and force their's down our throughts.One thing we should all understand is no white people nor black ,indian build this country. WE BUILD THIS COUNTRY ALL OF US, we cannot let a number of people ruin it while we sit and look.

      Sibusiso - 2012-04-19 15:58

      Timmy how about I change your name to tiny at gun point. When you defeat me and take my gun, will you still continue to call yourself tiny ?

  • Ask - 2012-04-19 17:36

    'Old' South Africa could have made a significant contribution to this Museum.

  • Ask - 2012-04-19 18:19

    I think this is a great idea; we need to remind ourselves of the horrors of racism.. this is equally important in remembering the Holocaust, including the memories that are displayed at the Freedom Museum and such serious events that have occurred all over the world... Well done to the US...

  • Cris - 2012-04-19 20:11

    South Africa is one huge such museum. Everything about it reminds of racism.

      sean.redmond3 - 2012-04-20 11:20

      The anc for starters.

  • Joach - 2012-04-20 09:01

    This means that we are actually living in a museum. Racism in SA is worse now than ever before, it's just not called racism due to political correctness.

  • Randomhero6661 - 2012-04-20 09:33

    im not racist, this means nothing to me, and besides why step down to the level of racism, if you don't know how to curse will you ever curse, just like you know how to walk so you walk...Anybody with an idea to change the past please come forward otherwise lets look at the future...

      sean.redmond3 - 2012-04-20 11:22

      Very forward thinking.

  • Euro - 2012-04-22 19:19

    Asia for Asians, Africa for Africans, White countries for everybody?????????? Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries. The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them. Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-whites. What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries? How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem? And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this? But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the white race, Liberals and respectable conservatives will just say that I’m a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews. They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white. Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.

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