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Racist Signs And Toys Teach Tolerance At Jim Crow Museum

Dolls, toys, signs, postcards, ashtrays and books are some of the many objects on view at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. [Jim Crow Museum]
Dolls, toys, signs, postcards, ashtrays and books are some of the many objects on view at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia [Jim Crow Museum]

Think of an everyday object and David Pilgrim says you’ll probably find it at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

“An ashtray, postcards, toys, anything you would find in the kitchen, anything you would find in a restroom, sheet music, obviously books,” said Pilgrim, museum founder and curator.

The Jim Crow Museum holds more than 100 depictions of the mammy caricature, as seen on this shelf in the form of salt and pepper shakers and other household objects. [Jim Crow Museum]

Thousands of such items- from the past and present- fill the museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, 50 miles north of Grand Rapids.

“We have what I refer to as everyday caricatured objects of African Americans. We also have segregation memorabilia, or segregation artifacts, things like the 'whites only' signs,” he said.

David Pilgrim talks to museum visitors before closing to in-person visits during the pandemic. [Jim Crow Museum]

Pilgrim, a sociologist with a doctorate from Ohio State University, started the museum from his own collection of predominantly anti-Black materials. The objective is to use the items to start conversations around racism, whether it’s with school groups or corporate leaders.  

“We're at a time in this country when I think there is quite a bit of momentum for destroying the objects. Our approach is different,” Pilgrim said. “We believe that material objects document the past, that they are a way to help us better understand the past, and quite frankly, help us from repeating the mistakes in the past.”

Aunt Jemima advertisement hanging on the wall in the Jim Crow Museum in Michigan. [Jim Crow Museum]

Even as brands like Aunt Jemima leave store shelves, which is expected this year, the related imagery hangs on.

Much of what’s on view at the Jim Crow Museum continues to be collected and sold, Pilgrim said.  

“Even if it were possible, which it's not, to destroy the existing objects or destroy them as we find them, that does not stop the creation of new objects.” he said.

A museum visitor looks at segregation signs on view at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. [Jim Crow Museum]

Like many other museums, the facility closed due to the pandemic, but still offers an interactive, online tour. Pilgrim also brings the story of the Jim Crow Museum to Northeast Ohioans Monday as part of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Pilgrim leads a virtual discussion on “Race, Racism and the Jim Crow Museum” at 3 p.m.

Reflecting on the legacy of King in advance of the discussion, Pilgrim said King’s words in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" come to mind: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Although [the museum’s] focus is primarily on African Americans, we also collect objects that defame and mock women, you know, members of the LGBTQ community, poor whites, Mexicans and others,” Pilgrim said. “One of the things I hope to talk about are ways that different groups that have been disfavored in our culture can work together.”


Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.