By David Pilgrim
October 28th, 2020
Editor’s note: This article examines the power of racist objects
from America’s Jim Crow period to teach social justice. For some
people, certain images in the article may be disturbing. Yet, the
presentation of these images is important. Many Black people lived in
cultural contexts where they could not avoid the explicit and implicit
imagery of white privilege. Tragically, many still do. As the author
suggests, the achievement of social justice will require us to move
beyond “happy history” to honest history.
At a time when many Americans are destroying racist objects, I am
taking a different approach. I have spent more than four decades
collecting Ku Klux Klan robes, segregation signs, and thousands of
everyday objects that portray African Americans as dutiful servants,
childlike buffoons, exotic savages, hypersexual deviants, and most
disturbingly, menacing predators who must be punished.
I collected these items because I believed—then later, knew—that
objects, even hateful ones, can be used as teaching tools. In the
mid-1990s, I donated the artifacts to Ferris State University in Big
Rapids, Michigan, where I was a sociology professor. Later, I used the
collection to create the Jim Crow Museum.
Today the museum, housed at the university, is the largest collection
of publicly accessible racist objects in the United States. Our tagline
doubles as our vision: “using objects of intolerance to teach
tolerance and promote social justice.” The museum is my life’s work.
We know what we know, in part, because of what we have experienced. I
was born in Harlem but raised in Mobile, Alabama, and Prichard, a city
four miles north of there. It was the late-1950s and both were Jim
Crow towns. The neighborhoods were rigidly segregated. The schools were
either all-white or all-Black. The churches were as segregated as the
schools. Black people could not visit the local libraries. Whites owned
all the big money and most of the good jobs. There were Black
preachers, teachers, and owners of small shops—on the Black side of
town—but most Black people had low-status jobs with poverty wages.
“Whites Only” signs hung in the windows of downtown stores. The
businesses that did accept Black customers did so under the terms of
Jim Crow—a Black person, for example, could not try on clothes in a
retail shop. The police departments, all white, had reputations for
beating Black people. It is not hyperbolic to say that skin color was
the primary determinant of one’s place in those cities as late as the
My ancestors from the past four generations include people from
Africa, Venezuela, Spain, the Bahamas, and people indigenous to this
country. I was a multiracial kid growing up in the deepest blackest
South at a time when Jim Crow, though dying, was still alive. So, from
my beginning, I thought about race a lot. When I was twelve or
thirteen, I bought my first racist object, probably a mammy saltshaker,
at a hybrid carnival/flea market in Mobile. I do not remember much
about that day, but I do know that I threw the figurine to the ground.
It broke. It was not a philosophical act. I simply did not like it.
That was the last racist object that I purchased to break.
I attended Jarvis Christian College, a Black Disciples of Christ
school in rural Texas. The school was poor, but my education was
top-drawer. Benton Adams made us polished public speakers. Roy Uyechi
tried to make historians of us. John H. Morgan, a theologian and
sociologist, demanded that we thought in ways that were nuanced and
defensible. We learned our share of what is called General Education,
but, equally important, we were taught about the daily heroism of the
maids, butlers, and sharecroppers who risked their jobs, and sometimes
their lives, to protest Jim Crow segregation. O. C. Nix, who taught
political science and history, used the Socratic method to test our
understanding, arguments, and patience—but he did something else: he
showed us the power of objects as teaching tools.
One day he brought a chauffeur’s hat to class. He set it
down, then asked about its relationship to the Jim Crow period. The
obvious answer was that Black people who lived during Jim Crow were
restricted by a race-segregated job economy; chauffeuring was one of
the few jobs open to them. But that was not the answer Nix wanted. That
answer was too obvious. He talked to us about the small Black middle
class that existed in the 1940s in rural Texas. They wanted the
material things that white people wanted: good-quality clothes, a nice
house, expensive furniture, and maybe a shiny brand-new car. But they
needed to be careful. A Black person, even a professional, who drove a
new car violated the Jim Crow social script. The hat, an inanimate
object, spoke for and protected them. I am a chauffeur; this car
does not belong to me. People like me do not desire or deserve new
cars. I am not uppity. I am not a threat to you. I know my place. You
do not need to hurt me. Please let me go on my way.
I remember that story so vividly. No object holds any meaning other
than what we assign to it, but this was a powerful meaning to assign to
an object that, on the surface, had little to do with racism. It was
during my time as a student at Jarvis Christian College when I first had
the idea of building a large collection of racist objects. If Nix
could use the cap to teach a compelling lesson about Black life under
Jim Crow, I reasoned, it should be easy for me to use the objects in my
collection as teaching tools.
Long before I became acquainted with what pedagogical specialists
call object-based learning, I had used racist objects as tools to
facilitate learning in the sociology classes that I taught. Using my
version of Visual Thinking Strategies, I introduced objects—typically
everyday items that caricatured Black people—and then asked questions. What is it that you see? What else do you see?
This was not simply an icebreaker to get students to do something that
many of us resist (talking about race); it was an early step on the
road to viewing the objects and what they represent in deeper, more
layered ways. Have you always seen it that way? Have your experiences shaped what you see? How do others see this object? I began this work when I was a professor, it continues decades later in the museum when I work with visitors.
Even if I live to be a hundred, I will always be fascinated by the
variance that exists between two people viewing the same object.
We recreated a kitchen in the museum. It has a sink, towel
racks, storage areas, and shelves. We display hundreds of objects in
that kitchen: boxes of Gold Dust Washing Powder, Aunt Dinah Molasses
jars (we need to empty those), Fun-to-Wash boxes, and cans of Luzianne
Coffee and Chicory. There are dozens of signs: Topsy Chocolate Honey
Drink, Aunt Sally’s Cake Flour, Famous Black Nancy Coal, Smoky Jim’s
Sweet Potatoes, and much more. It would not be a kitchen without
representations of Aunt Jemima. We display Aunt Jemima dolls, cookbooks,
ceramic figures, and, of course, the boxes on which she appeared for
more than a century.
Some visitors look at Aunt Jemima pancake boxes and are reminded of
good times spent with their families. They wistfully remember the past.
But there are others, like me, who look at those same boxes and see
the vestiges of enslavement and segregation. If there is genius in the
museum, it is that we created a space where people who see the world in
very different ways are safe to share their beliefs. It sounds trite
(and a little dangerous these days) to say that we still believe in
The past is what happened; history is a narrative of what happened.
The Jim Crow Museum uses objects to help us understand the past, even
when what we find contradicts historical accounts, even when examining
what happened is painful. Americans like happy history—narratives that
make us look smart, brave, and exceptional. We want a history that has
been cherry-picked, one that ignores our mistreatment of the weak and
disfavored—a history that can be celebrated at picnics, parades, and in
smug conversations. This approach to history is neither honest nor
mature. A lynching tree was recreated in the center of the museum. It
is a reminder that more than 4,000 black people were lynched in this
country during the Jim Crow period.
Most well-read people know that blackface minstrelsy was a popular
American theatrical form as late as the early twentieth century. The
museum displays black-faced figurines, makeup for minstrel performers,
minstrel joke books and scripts, and sheet music with titles like “All
Coons Look Alike to Me” and “Coon, Coon, Coon.” Blackface minstrelsy
was founded on the comic enactment of racial stereotypes.
Few people know that while white (and Black) performers
blackened their faces, whitened their lips, and acted like buffoons to
entertain audiences, other whites blackened their skin and committed
heinous crimes. In 1923, a white high school student in Kansas City
blackened his face and committed a robbery. He was not alone in his
ruse. There were dozens of cases in the early 1900s where white
criminals, their faces darkened with greasepaint or burnt cork, robbed,
raped, and murdered—their true identities not discovered until (and
unless) they were captured.
There are many stories told in the Jim Crow Museum, but none are as
chilling as the accounts of white people using the skin of Black people
as human leather. In 1912, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch told the story
of “a physician’s wife who is having a dead negro’s skin tanned for a
Christmas gift for her husband. A part of the negro’s hide is to be
made into a razor strop.” Our research found newspaper stories, from
the period of Reconstruction to the mid-1920s, where the skin of Black
people was sewn into purses, shoes, belts, and other products. This
ghoulish practice is, of course, disgusting to contemporary Americans;
however, there was a time—not so long ago—when the debasement of Black
Americans was so nearly complete that one could read about the skin of a
Black person being tanned in the same newspaper that reported the
previous day’s baseball box scores.
Studying the past (and the histories which narrate it) should not be
driven by desires to make us feel good or bad—but, simply, to help us
understand what happened. An objective examination of this country’s
past reveals much to admire—and actions that no sober-thinking,
fair-minded person should praise. A common visitor response in the
museum is deep sadness. That seems reasonable. The majority of the
8,000-plus objects on display are racially caricatured everyday objects
and segregation memorabilia. But some objects document the efforts of
African American artists to deconstruct racist imagery.
We have a copy of Jon Lockard’s 1967 painting, No More. It shows a Black woman on an Aunt Jemima box. But this is not your father’s mammy. Her bandana bears the colors of the Pan-African flag:
red, black, and green. Her face is stern, eyebrows raised, her fist
bursting through the box. It is a not-so-subtle refutation of the
smiling “mammies” whose greatest fulfillment came from serving her
white “family.” Lockard’s painting and the Aunt Jemima iconography it
attempts to deconstruct serve as fruitful tools for discussion. In
2020, Quaker Oats removed the image of Aunt Jemima from its packaging.
The decision-makers at their company likely had conversations similar
to the ones that have occurred in the Jim Crow Museum for decades. I
applaud their decision.
Artists like Lockhard used their art to push back against
Jim Crow—the system and the symbols that supported it—so it makes sense
that their work should be displayed in the Jim Crow Museum. But these
are not the only objects which serve as starting points for discussing
the efforts of individuals and groups who worked to undermine the
racial hierarchy. In one exhibit, you will find a blanket from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,
the first labor organization led by African Americans chartered by the
American Federation of Labor. The organization’s first two presidents,
A. Philip Randolph and C. L. Dellums, became leaders in the civil
One of my favorite pieces is a 1972 poster advertising the presidential candidacy of Shirley Chisholm.
It bears a slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed”—also the name of her
biography. We exhibit several trading cards for Jack Johnson, the first
Black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Most visitors are
surprised to learn that the famed pugilist—infamous in his time for
beating white boxers and dating white women—also patented an early
version of the wrench in 1922.
The Jim Crow Museum also houses several portraits of African
Americans who came to Michigan’s Ferris Institute (an early incarnation
of Ferris State University) from Virginia’s Hampton Institute, which is
today Hampton University. From 1910 to the mid-1920s, more than a dozen of these students
came north to find opportunities to take college preparatory
courses—and to escape the daily indignities of Jim Crow. They
distinguished themselves in their chosen professions, and, equally
important, they became civil rights leaders.
One of those students was Belford V. Lawson, the lead attorney in New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co.,
a landmark Supreme Court case in 1938 that safeguarded the right to
picket. He was the first African American to win a case before the
nation’s highest court. One of Lawson’s contemporaries, Percival L.
Prattis, was a pioneering journalist and influential newspaper
executive. In 1947, he became the first African American news
correspondent admitted to the U.S. House and Senate press galleries.
Why is the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University? One
answer goes back to our founder, Woodbridge Nathan Ferris, who, long
before it was normative, created an institution for all students,
irrespective of their backgrounds. For many years, the university’s
mission was “to make the world better.”
Woodbridge Ferris’s legacy is our mandate. We have endeavored to
create a facility where people can hold intelligent, nuanced
conversations. In the first life of the museum, from the mid-1990s to
2011, we were housed in a 500-foot square room. We were, in effect,
visual storage. In 2012, we moved to a larger facility to give us the
space to tell the stories that we believed needed to be told. We have
outgrown that space. We now envision a stand-alone facility, with
state-of-the-art archives, storage, and technology—a space that will
allow us to display 10,000 additional objects. And more importantly, we
want to build a facility that allows us to tell additional stories,
most notably, the role of Jim Crow in Michigan and the history of
racial justice efforts in this country.
Wherever we are, we will remain committed to (it may sound
sentimental) the triumph of dialogue. When hearts and heads meet through
honest, courageous dialogue, especially about difficult, even painful,
topics, the possibility for lasting change emerges. Like a skillful
teacher, the Jim Crow Museum uses objects in its lesson plan to stir
passionate feelings and incite deep thinking in visitors. Accordingly,
this provocative museum employs the time-honored pedagogical principle
often used in kindergarten classrooms: show-and-tell.
As Zora Neale Hurston, the famed twentieth-century African American
anthropologist and educator, understood well, “show-and-tell” is more
than fun and games. Show-and-tell can be a pathway to serious and
significant personal edification and communal transformation. She once
wrote, “Tell me, and then again, show me, so I can know.”
Year after year at the Jim Crow Museum, we tell people, and then we
show them aspects of our problematic past so that we may know better
ways to create a more positive present and a more hopeful future.
David Pilgrim is the founder of the Jim Crow Museum and the vice
president of diversity, inclusion, and strategic initiatives at Ferris
State University. His book Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors: Stories from the Jim Crow Museum, was published by PM Press in 2018.
Editor’s note: Culture is a process of creating, communicating,
and contesting values and meanings, a process where something as
seemingly small as a lowercase or uppercase letter can convey
significant nuances. At Smithsonian Folklife, we include many
perspectives as we build cultural understanding. In the spirit of
inclusivity, we respect the wishes of our collaborators in
capitalizing—or not—racial, ethnic, and cultural terms.
Check out David’s books: