Skeletons in the American Closet

Imagine that you are on vacation with your family.  You want to have a “historical experience.”  Maybe you want to go to Colonial Williamsburg and celebrate America’s colonial roots.  Or maybe viewing the Star Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History is more your style.  Whatever it is, most visitors to museums and historic sites want to hear an uplifting and inspirational story.  What about institutions like the U.S. Holocaust Museum you say?  While it is much “heavier” history, at the end Americans can feel a certain pride at being the liberators.  Do you think you would visit a museum called The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia? Well you could if you wished.  It is housed at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI.  Though it is uncomfortable history for most Americans, it represents an important lesson- that we can learn from our own mistakes.  In addition to the shining moments in America’s history, we must also acknowledge our own flawed past and the lessons that can be derived from it.

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia is located in a small 500 square-foot room on the Ferris State campus.  Dr. David Pilgrim, a sociology professor and Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, is both donor and curator of the over 4,000 objects housed here. He envisions the museum “as an international leader in the anti-racism movement,” however he acknowledges that the small institution still has a long way to go. [1]   Currently, Dr. Pilgrim views the museum as a “learning and teaching laboratory.”  It is not open to the public on a daily basis, but visits are instead incorporated into academic courses, workshops, and seminars.  Future plans for the museum will hopefully change this, providing a new location with 2,100 square-feet of space for exhibits and multi-media displays that tell the story of Jim Crow.

One of the museum’s frequently-asked-questions is, “If we forget about the past, will not these racist images die?” In response, Dr. Pilgrim states that, “The items in the museum are still being sold. More significantly, all of the items in the museum are still being created. Yes! These Jim Crow images are still being created and distributed. Some are created as fake antiques. Some are created as cheap reproductions that do not pretend to be originals. And, some are new racist items which use old Jim Crow images.” [2]  The museum site also references the continuance of hate crimes, such as the brutal 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr.  In Through the Eyes of Others, which also references the Byrd murder, authors Sorin and Aimonovitch present an even more current episode of racial intimidation in 2007 when a noose was placed on the door of a Columbia University Professor.  They state that “the presence of a noose has become a symbol of intimidation and hate against black Americans that persists.” [3] Similarly, the Jim Crow Museum recognizes the negative sentiments that still abound in the country and the continual production and sale of racist items and imagery.

For the Jim Crow Museum, telling the story of violence, anti-black imagery, and segregation is a necessary step in learning from and moving beyond Jim Crow.  When seminal author Richard Wright reflected on his “Jim Crow education” in his work Uncle Tom’s Children, he recalled both “brutally cruel” and “subtly cruel” treatment. [4]   Similarly, the Jim Crow Museum focuses on how racist depictions and social codes helped reinforce and encourage brutality.  They provide information on minstrel shows, the etiquette norms of Jim Crow, and examples of caricatures like the coon, golliwog, and mammy.  These portrayals and standards served as tools to dehumanize blacks and create societal apathy.  It is for this reason that Dr. Pilgrim argues that the shocking and offensive artifacts at the Jim Crow Museum should be preserved and displayed.

In an even broader sense, the Jim Crow Museum hopes to expand its focus beyond solely African Americans to discriminatory presentations of other groups in popular culture, including Asian American, homosexuals, and poor whites.  The beginnings of this effort can be seen in the museum’s travelling exhibition, “Them.” Comparing these ambitious visions with the current short-term goals of the museum, such as digitizing their collection, illustrates the true breadth of what Dr. Pilgrim is working towards.

So now that you know more about the institution, I will ask again- would you visit the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia?

[1] “Vision of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University,” http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/vision.htm.

[2] “FAQ,” http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/FAQ.htm.

[3] Gretchen Sullivan Sorin and Mary C. Aimonovitch, Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art (Cooperstown, NY: Fenimore Art Museum, 2008), 51.

[4] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2004), 13.

2 thoughts on “Skeletons in the American Closet

  1. I wonder where is the interpretation? Where are the dialogues? I think this museum is very interesting, but in its current state I don’t think I would visit this museum. I think the job of a Jim Crow museum is to use the objects of the past to help us understand where we are now. They need to become more dialectic about racism and bigotry to make a true impact.

    • I agree. If you watch the video on the new facility they are planning you will see some of the interpretative and didactic themes they hope to present. I think at the moment the biggest obstacle is space, money, and staff.

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