Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice

Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629631141
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 11/25/2015
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 681,396
Product dimensions: 8.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

David Pilgrim is a professor, orator, and human rights activist. He is best known as the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum—a 10,000-piece collection of racist artifacts located at Ferris State University, which uses objects of intolerance to teach about race, race relations, and racism. He is the author of On Being Black. He lives in Big Rapids, Michigan. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is the author of Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513–2008. He is also an Emmy Award–winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Understanding Jim Crow

Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice

By David Pilgrim

PM Press

Copyright © 2015 Ferris State University and PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62963-179-0


The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects

As for me, I raced around the dumpsters collecting discarded "White" and "Colored" signs, thinking they would be of some interest to posterity in a Museum of Horrors.

— Stetson Kennedy

I am a garbage collector — racist garbage. For three decades I collected items that defame and belittle Africans and their American descendants. I have a parlor game, 72 Pictured Party Stunts, from the 1930s. One of the game's cards instructs players to "go through the motions of a colored boy eating watermelon." The card shows a dark black boy, with bulging eyes and blood-red lips, eating a watermelon as large as he is. The card offends me, but I collected it and thousands of similar items that portray blacks as coons, Toms, Sambos, mammies, picaninnies, and other dehumanizing racial caricatures. I collect this garbage because I believe, and know to be true, that items of intolerance can be used to teach tolerance and promote social justice.

I bought my first racist object when I was twelve or thirteen. My memory of that event is not perfect. It was the early 1970s in Mobile, Alabama, the home of my youth. The item was small, probably a mammy saltshaker. It must have been cheap because I never had much money. And it must have been ugly, because after I paid the dealer I threw the item to the ground, shattering it. It was not a political act; I simply hated it, if you can hate an object. I do not know if he scolded me, he almost certainly did. I was what folks in Mobile, blacks and whites, indelicately referred to as a "Red Nigger" — a pejorative term for light-skinned African Americans. In those days, in that place, he could have thrown that name at me, without incident. I do not remember what he called me, but I am certain he called me something other than David Pilgrim.

I have a 1916 magazine advertisement that shows a little black boy, softly caricatured, drinking from an ink bottle. The bottom caption reads, "Nigger Milk." I bought the print in 1988 from an antique store in La Porte, Indiana. It was framed and offered for sale at twenty dollars. The sales clerk wrote "Black Print" on the receipt. I told her to write, "Nigger Milk Print." And, I added, "If you are going to sell it, call it by its name." She refused. We argued. I bought the print and left. That was my last argument with a dealer or sales clerk; today, I purchase the items and leave with little or no conversation.

The mammy saltshaker and the "Nigger Milk" print are not the most offensive items that I have seen. In 1874, McLoughlin Brothers of New York manufactured a puzzle game called "Chopped Up Niggers." Today, it is a prized collectible. I have twice seen the game for sale, but neither time did I have the $3,000 necessary to purchase it. There are postcards from the first half of the twentieth century that show blacks being whipped, or worse, hanging dead from trees, or lying on the ground burned beyond recognition. Postcards and photographs of lynched blacks sell for around $400 each on eBay and other internet auction houses. I can afford to buy one, but I am not ready, not yet.

My friends claim that I am obsessed with racist objects. If they are right, the obsession began while I was an undergraduate student at Jarvis Christian College, a small historically black institution in Hawkins, Texas. The teachers taught more than scientific principles and mathematical equations. I learned from them what it was like to live as a black man under Jim Crow segregation. Imagine being a college professor but having to wear a chauffeur's hat while driving your new car through small towns, lest some disgruntled white man beat you for being "uppity." The stories I heard were not angry ones; no, worse, they were matter-of-fact accounts of everyday life in a land where every black person was considered inferior to every white person, a time when "social equality" was a profane expression, fighting words. Blacks knew their clothing sizes. Why? They were not allowed to try on clothes in department stores. If blacks and whites wore the same clothes, even for a short while, it implied social equality and, perhaps, intimacy.

I was ten years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed; we watched the funeral on a small black and white television in my fifth-grade class at Bessie C. Fonville Elementary School. All my classmates were black; Mobile was proudly, defiantly segregated. Two years later, in search of a cheaper house, my family moved to Prichard, Alabama, a small adjoining city that was even more segregated. Less than a decade earlier, blacks had not been allowed to use the Prichard Public Library unless they had a note from a white person. Whites owned most of the stores and held all the elected offices. I was part of the class that integrated Prichard Middle School. A local television commentator called it an "invasion." Invaders? We were children. We fought adult whites on the way to school and white children at school. By the time I graduated from Mattie T. Blount High School, most of the whites had left the city. When I arrived at Jarvis Christian College I was not naive about southern race relations.

My college teachers taught the usual lessons about Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois. More importantly, they taught about the daily heroism of the maids, butlers, and sharecroppers who risked their jobs, and sometimes their lives, to protest Jim Crow segregation. I learned to read history critically, from the "bottom up," not as a linear critique of so-called great men, but from the viewpoint of oppressed people. I realized the great debt that I owed to the blacks — all but a few forgotten by history — who suffered so that I could be educated. It was at Jarvis Christian College that I learned that a scholar could be an activist, indeed must be. Here, I first had the idea of building a collection of racist objects. I was not sure what I would do with it.

All racial groups have been caricatured in this country, but none have been caricatured as often or in as many ways as have black Americans. Blacks have been portrayed in popular culture as pitiable exotics, cannibalistic savages, hypersexual deviants, childlike buffoons, obedient servants, self-loathing victims, and menaces to society. These antiblack depictions were routinely manifested in or on material objects: ashtrays, drinking glasses, banks, games, fishing lures, detergent boxes, and other everyday items. These objects both reflected and shaped attitudes toward African Americans. Robbin Henderson, former director of the Berkeley Art Center, said, "Derogatory imagery enables people to absorb stereotypes; which in turn allows them to ignore and condone injustice, discrimination, segregation, and racism." She was right. Racist imagery is propaganda, and that propaganda was used to support Jim Crow laws and customs.

Jim Crow was more than a series of "Whites Only" signs. It was a way of life that approximated a racial caste system. Jim Crow laws and etiquette were aided by millions of material objects that portrayed blacks as laughable, detestable inferiors. The coon caricature, for example, described black men as lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, physically ugly idiots. This distorted representation of black men found its way onto postcards, sheet music, children's games, and many other material objects. The coon and other stereotypical images buttressed the view that blacks were unfit to attend racially integrated schools, live in safe neighborhoods, work in responsible jobs, vote, and hold public office. With little effort I can hear the voices of my black elders — parents, neighbors, teachers — demanding, almost pleading, "Don't be coon, be a man." Living under Jim Crow meant battling shame.

I collected many racist objects during my four years as a graduate student at the Ohio State University. Most of the items were small and inexpensive. I paid two dollars for a postcard that showed a terrified black man being eaten by an alligator. I paid five dollars for a matchbook that showed a Sambo-like character with oversized genitalia. The collection that I amassed was not a sample of what existed in Ohio — or any state; it was, instead, a sample of what I could afford. Brutally racist items were, and remain, the most expensive "black collectibles." In Orrville, Ohio, I saw a framed print showing naked black children climbing a fence to enter a swimming hole. The caption read, "Last One In's A Nigger." I did not have the $125 to purchase it. That was the early 1980s, a few years before the prices for racist collectibles escalated. Today, that print, if authentic, sells for several thousand dollars. On vacation, I scoured flea markets and antique stores from Ohio to Alabama, looking for items that denigrated black people.

My years at Ohio State were, I realize now, filled with much anger. I suppose every sane black person must be angry — for a while. I was in the Sociology Department, a politically liberal department, and talk about improving race relations was common. There were five or six black students, and we clung together like frightened outsiders. I will not speak for my black colleagues, but I was sincerely doubtful of my white professors' understanding of everyday racism. Their lectures were often brilliant, but never complete. Race relations were fodder for theoretical debate; blacks were a "research category." Real blacks, with real ambitions and problems, were problematic. I was suspicious of my white teachers and several reciprocated that feeling.

A friend suggested that I take some of my elective courses in the Black Studies Program. I did. James Upton, a political scientist, introduced me to Paul Robeson's book Here I Stand. Robeson, an accomplished athlete and entertainer, was also an activist who believed that American capitalism was pernicious and detrimental to poor people, especially black Americans. Robeson maintained his political convictions despite ostracism and outright persecution. I was not anticapitalist, but I admired his willingness to follow his political convictions — and his unwavering fight for the rights of oppressed people. I read many books about race and race relations but few impacted me as much as Here I Stand. I read James Baldwin's novels and essays. His anger found a willing ear, but I was troubled by his homosexuality. That is hardly surprising. I was reared in a community that was demonstratively homophobic. Homosexuality was seen as weakness, and "sissies" were "bad luck." White bigots do not have a monopoly on ignorance. Progressiveness is a journey. I had a long way to go.

I have long felt that Americans, especially whites, would rather talk about slavery than Jim Crow. All ex-slaves are dead. They do not walk among us, their presence a reminder of that unspeakably cruel system. Their children are dead. Distanced by a century and a half, the modern American sees slavery as a regrettable period when blacks worked without wages. Slavery was, of course, much worse. It was the complete domination of one people by another people — with the expected abuses that accompany unchecked power. Slavers whipped slaves who displeased them. Clergy preached that slavery was the will of God. Scientists "proved" that blacks were less evolved, a subspecies of the human race. Politicians agreed. Teachers taught young children that blacks were inherently less intelligent. Laws forbade slaves, and sometimes free blacks, from reading, writing, owning money, and arguing with whites. Slaves were property — thinking, suffering property. The passing of a century and a half affords the typical American enough psychological space to deal with slavery; when that is not sufficient, a sanitized version of slavery is embraced.

The horrors of Jim Crow are not so easily ignored. The children of Jim Crow walk among us, and they have stories to tell. They remember Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 for flirting with a white woman. Long before the tragic bombings of September 11, 2001, blacks who lived under Jim Crow were acquainted with terrorism. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed. Twenty-three people were hurt, and four girls were killed. The blacks who grew up during the Jim Crow period can tell you about this bombing and many other acts of domestic terrorism. Blacks who dared protest the indignities of Jim Crow were threatened and, when the threats did not work, subjected to violence, including bombings. The children of Jim Crow can talk about the Scottsboro boys, the Tuskegee experiment, lynching, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and they have stories about the daily indignities that befell blacks who lived in towns where they were not respected or wanted.

Yes, many of us would rather talk about slavery than Jim Crow because a discussion of Jim Crow raises the question, "What about today?"

In 1990 I joined the sociology faculty at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. At that time, my collection of racist artifacts numbered more than a thousand. I kept the collection in my home, bringing out pieces when I gave public addresses, mainly to high school students. I discovered that many young people, blacks and whites, were not only ignorant about historical expressions of racism, but they believed that I was exaggerating when I described the awfulness of Jim Crow. Their ignorance disappointed me. I showed them segregation signs, Ku Klux Klan robes, and everyday objects that portrayed blacks with ragged clothes, unkempt hair, bulging eyes, and clown-like lips — running toward fried chicken and watermelons and running away from alligators. I talked to the students about the connection between Jim Crow laws and racist material objects. I was too heavy-handed, too driven to make them understand; I was learning to use the objects as teaching tools — while, simultaneously, dealing with my anger.

A seminal event occurred in 1991. A colleague told me about an elderly black woman who had a large collection of black-related objects. I will call her Mrs. Haley. She was an antique dealer in a small town. I visited her and told her about my collection. She seemed unimpressed. I described how I used the racist objects to teach students about racism. Again, she was not impressed. Her store displayed a few pieces of racist memorabilia. I asked if she kept most of the "black material" at her home. She said that she kept those pieces in the back, but I could only see them if I agreed to a condition, namely, I could never "pester" her to sell me any of the objects. I agreed. She locked the front door, put the "closed" sign in the window, and motioned for me to follow her.

If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget the feeling that I had when I saw her collection; it was sadness, a thick, cold sadness. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of objects, side by side, on shelves that reached to the ceiling. All four walls were covered with the most racist objects imaginable. I owned some of the objects, others I had seen in black memorabilia price guides, and others were so rare I have not seen them since. I was stunned. Sadness. It was as if I could hear the pieces talking, yowling. Every conceivable distortion of black people, our people, was on display. It was a chamber of horrors. She did not talk. She stared at me; I stared at the objects. One was a life-sized wooden figure of a black man, grotesquely caricatured. It was a testament to the creative energy that often lurks behind racism. On her shelves was a material record of all the hurt and harm done to Africans and their American descendants. I wanted to cry. It was at that moment that I decided to create a museum.

I visited her often. She liked me because I was "from down home." She told me that in the 1960s and 1970s many whites gave her racist objects. They did not want to be identified with racism. They were embarrassed. That sentiment changed in the mid-1980s. Several price guides devoted solely to racist collectibles were published. The price guides helped create the contemporary market for racist collectibles. Each new price guide showed prices escalating, and a national pursuit of racist items ensued. Mrs. Haley's collection was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but she had no desire to sell the pieces. They were our past, America's past. "We mustn't forget, baby," she said, without even a hint of anger. I stopped visiting after a year or so, she died, and I heard that her collection was sold to private dealers. That broke my heart on several levels. It bothers me that she did not live to see the museum she helped inspire.

I continued to collect racist objects: musical records with racist themes, fishing lures with Sambo imagery, children's games that showed naked, dirty black children — any and every racist item that I could afford. In the cold months I bought from antique stores; in the warmer months, I traveled to flea markets. I was impatient. I sought to purchase entire collections from dealers and collectors. Again, limited finances restricted me to purchasing only small collections.


Excerpted from Understanding Jim Crow by David Pilgrim. Copyright © 2015 Ferris State University and PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


FOREWORD by Henry Louis Gates Jr.,
CHAPTER ONE The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects,
CHAPTER TWO An Unorthodox Teaching Tool,
CHAPTER THREE Understanding Jim Crow,
CHAPTER FOUR A Caricatured Family,
CHAPTER FIVE Flawed Women,
CHAPTER SIX Dangerous Men,
CHAPTER SEVEN A Night in Howell,

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Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I been wanted to increase my knowledge of my ancestors and history. This book has opened my eyes in way that makes me see things a little different. Its a great starter for those who are wanting to understand a little more. Every black person should read this.