New lessons from old stereotypes

Sunday, April 25, 2004

BIG RAPIDS, Mich. -- It all started for David Pilgrim with the "mammy" salt shaker.

It was toward the end of the Civil Rights era in the early 1970s. Pilgrim, now a 45-year-old sociology professor at Ferris State University, was about 13 when he came across the dispenser at a flea market in his native Alabama.

For years in the United States, particularly in the South, it was common to find salt and pepper shakers, cookie jars and other household items made to resemble a "mammy" -- a stereotypical image of a black, heavyset, kerchief- and apron-wearing housekeeper and nursemaid.

Over the years Pilgrim acquired 4,000 or so related items in the name of education. All are now housed at Ferris State's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which Pilgrim has helped put together over the past seven years.

The term "Jim Crow" originated with a character created in black face by a white performer named Daddy Rice in the early 1800s. It later was used as a stereotypical image of blacks and, by the late 1800s, was associated with racist and segregationist laws.

The museum's mission is to help people understand historical and contemporary racist expressions and to serve as a resource for civil rights and human rights organizations.

"As you consider how they use these materials, it's a powerful, powerful teaching library in terms of tolerance and understanding for others," said David Eisler, Ferris State's president.

Pilgrim gave the museum his entire collection of racist figurines, T-shirts, comic books, ashtrays, souvenirs, movie posters and other related items. As its curator, he now receives a small budget from the university to expand the collection.

"The same way we use sex to sell items today, we used to use race," Pilgrim says. "A disproportionate number of items in here are advertising pieces or had their origins in advertising."

The room's display cases are filled with startling, offensive anti-black words and images.

"Every group has been caricatured in the United States, but when you deal with Africans and their American descendants, they've been caricatured more, more often and, arguably, more viciously," Pilgrim says.

There are materials from the Ku Klux Klan, but they aren't given prominence over any other items because the museum focuses on "everyday racist items," says Pilgrim, who considers the museum to be a learning laboratory.

Visitors must make special arrangements through Pilgrim's office or the office of John Thorp, the museum's director, or be part of a university-approved academic course, workshop or seminar. A museum guide, often a sociology student, must be present to discuss the exhibits and answer the questions that inevitably arise.

"For the first time ever, many of them are having a genuine conversation about race when they're in here," says Thorp, who also heads up Ferris State's social sciences department.

It has been about two years since the Rev. John Frye, the teaching pastor at Bella Vista Church in Rockford, toured the museum with some other members of his church's ministry staff. He hasn't forgotten the impact it had on him.

"I felt sadness, I think I felt anger and then I just felt overwhelmed," Frye says. "I did not know how much racist memorabilia there actually was out there."

On the Net:

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia:

Public Museum of Grand Rapids:

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