Race
2:31 pm
Mon April 30, 2012

A Museum Teaches Tolerance Through Jim Crow

Originally published on Thu January 31, 2013 12:33 pm

This story contains offensive language.

The ugliness of racism is at the heart of a new museum in Michigan. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids features thousands of troubling artifacts and sometimes horrifying images. There are slave whips and chains; signs that once dictated where African-Americans could sit, walk or get a drink of water; and teddy bears turned into messengers of hate.

Andy Karafa, the museum's director, describes that last item: "It's this white little fluffy thing with a cute little red bow and this white T-shirt, and it reads 'I love niggers that are dead.' "

The items on display at the museum show a full range of American racial stereotypes and derogatory caricatures from the time. There are images of "mammies," "picaninnies," "sambos" and an entire section dedicated to the portrayal of black children as "alligator bait."

'We're Not A Shrine To Racism'

David Pilgrim, the museum's curator and founder, says the intention is not to traumatize, but to teach.

"If you hear about the museum, then you form opinions in the abstract, and that's very different from what happens with people that actually visit the facility," he says. "They really get it. They understand what it is. ... We're not a shrine to racism, any more so than a hospital is a shrine to disease."

In the middle of the museum sits the toughest exhibit of all. It's on the violence of Jim Crow, and when you step inside, you're confronted with a replica of a lynching tree. There's a display of Ku Klux Klan robes — they had special robes for the women — and just to the left there's a video montage of African-Americans being beaten, hanged and burned.

Karafa explains why there's so much violence in the exhibit: "Jim Crow as a system wouldn't have worked without it — either actual violence or the threat of violence."

Visitors leaving the exhibit are visibly shaken. Rowena Hamel chokes up as she explains that she lived through the Jim Crow era in an all-white community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

"I can't believe that I'm 84 years old and didn't realize," she says. "I've learned so much today. How could I have not seen this? I must have just been blind to it."

A Way To Talk About Race

Pilgrim's goal in founding the museum has been to open people's eyes, hearts and minds to the reality of Jim Crow. It took eight years and more than $1 million to create a permanent home for his collection, a memorial of hate aimed at teaching tolerance.

"We are a resource that does the thing that many Americans don't want to do, and that is to talk about race in a direct way," Pilgrim says.

He continues to collect new items, many of them now aimed at President Obama, including posters that show the president being lynched.

"Unfortunately, it appears that there will always be new caricatures created and new caricature objects created," he says. "For us, they just become opportunities to teach."

Pilgrim says he was 12 or 13 years old when he bought his first racist object. He doesn't remember what it was, but he does remember that he hated it — he threw it on the ground and smashed it. Today, 9,000 hateful items later, he's seeking those ugly artifacts out for a bigger purpose.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The ugliness of racism is on full display at a new museum in Michigan. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, at Ferris State University, features thousands of troubling artifacts and sometimes, horrifying images. Amy Robinson, from member station WCMU, visited the museum for its opening.

AMY ROBINSON, BYLINE: Slave whips and chains; signs dictating where African-Americans could sit, walk or get a drink of water; teddy bears turned into messengers of hate.

ANDY KARAFA: There's this white, little, fluffy thing with a cute, little red bow; and this white T-shirt, and it reads: I love niggers that are dead.

ROBINSON: Andy Karafa directs the Jim Crow Museum. The items on display show the full range of racial stereotypes. There are mammies, pickaninnies and sambos. One whole section is dedicated to the portrayal of black children as alligator bait.

DAVID PILGRIM: And I have to tell you this - if you hear about the museum, then you form opinions in the abstract. And that's very different from what happens with the people that actually visit the facility. They really get it. They understand what it is.

ROBINSON: Curator and founder of the museum, Professor David Pilgrim, says the intention of the Jim Crow Museum is not to traumatize, but to teach.

PILGRIM: We're not a shrine to racism any more so than a hospital is a shrine to disease.

ROBINSON: In the middle of the museum, you find the toughest room of all, the Jim Crow Violence Room. When you step inside, you're confronted with a replica of a lynching tree. There's a display of Ku Klux Klan robes; they had special robes for the women. And just to the left is a video montage of African-Americans being beaten, hanged and burned.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO MONTAGE PLAYING IN BACKGROUND)

KARAFA: The idea of having the violence in the center of the museum is Jim Crow, as a system, wouldn't have worked without it - either actual violence, or the threat of violence.

ROBINSON: As Karafa stands by the door, visitors leave the Violence Room shaken.

ROWENA HAMEL: Terrible.

ROBINSON: Terrible, says Rowena Hamel, at a loss. She was choked up. Hamel had lived through the Jim Crow era in an all-white community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

HAMEL: I can't believe that I'm 84 years old, and didn't realize. I've learned so much today. How could I have not seen this? I must have just been blind to it.

ROBINSON: Opening eyes, hearts and minds is the goal of Professor Pilgrim. It took eight years, and more than a million dollars, to create the permanent home for his collection; a memorial of hate, aimed at teaching tolerance.

PILGRIM: We're a resource that does the thing that many Americans don't want to do, and that is to talk about race in a direct way.

ROBINSON: Pilgrim continues to collect new items, many of them now aimed at President Barack Obama; including posters that show the president being lynched.

PILGRIM: Unfortunately, it appears that there will always be new caricatures created, and new caricature objects created. For us, they just become opportunities to teach.

ROBINSON: It's been decades since Professor Pilgrim bought his first racist object. He says he was 12 or 13. He doesn't remember what it was, but he remembers he hated it, and threw it on the ground and smashed it. Today, 9,000 hateful items later, he seeks out ugly artifacts.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Robinson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.