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A look inside a museum teaching history with racist memorabilia

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Posted at 8:38 AM, Feb 17, 2023

The elevator ride down to the basement of the Ferris State University library in Big Rapids, Michigan may be quick, but when someone sees what's kept there, David Pilgrim hopes it will leave a lasting impression.

“What we’re trying to show people is the sheer volume of objects that mocked and belittled African Americans," Pilgrim says.

Pilgrim is a sociology professor and the founder of the Jim Crow Museum, which bills itself as the largest collection of racist memorabilia in the United States.

For forty years, Pilgrim has collected many of the thousands of racist artifacts on display in the museum.

"I can teach with objects what I want to teach about Jim Crow about what it was like to be Black growing up and white," Pilgrim says.

The Jim Crow museum shows the lasting impact of Jim Crow, a name first given to a Black-faced caricature performed by white actors meant to belittle African Americans in the 1800s. It became the term used to describe the era of racial segregation that lasted until the 1960s.

The power of this museum, Pilgrim says, is in the debates over the everyday items, ones many will recognize, like images of Aunt Jemima, the breakfast brand that was retired in 2021.

“We bring people together who have different perspectives," Pilgrim says. "One group of people, look at this and think these are the vestiges of enslavement and Jim Crow, and some others look at it and think this just reminds me of good times that I spent with my grandparents.”

While popular in so many kitchens, according to historians, Aunt Jemima was not a real person, but instead a caricature based on stereotypes dating back to before the Civil War.

“It was a marketing ploy. It’s all of it was and it worked associating a Black woman with, with wholesome cooking," Pilgrim says.

Some might dismiss what is on display here as problems of the past, but Pilgrim says many of these racist items are still being made and sold today.

“There’s not a single object in this museum that's not being made right now, some variation of that object being made right now," Pilgrim says.

Emotion, Pilgrim says, is part of understanding history.

“The purpose of studying the past is to have a better understanding of the past and then we can do stuff when we have that nuanced understanding, but it’s not to make you feel better, not to make you feel worse either," Pilgrim says. "It's to teach and learn what really happened.”

The museum has a virtual tour online that allows anyone to experience it. Ferris State is in the process of planning a new facility, as the museum’s collection has grown far beyond the personal one Pilgrim started as a teenager.

“I believe America can be the city on the top of the hill, but we aren’t going to be it if we ignore the lessons that we should learn," Pilgrim says.