Q&A: David Pilgrim, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia curator

A redesigned museum at Ferris State University in Michigan collects old and new racist objects.

By Stephanie Siek, CNN

(CNN) – Generations of Americans have grown up intimately acquainted with stereotypes of African-Americans, from “mammies” serving Aunt Jemima pancakes, to “Little Black Sambo” at evening story time. In between, people could use washing powder, notepads, ashtrays, tea towels, sugar bowls, swizzle sticks and tobacco marketed with images of African-Americans portrayed as not only mammies and sambos, but dimwitted jungle savages, google-eyed golliwogs, lewdly sexual Jezebels, watermelon-eating pickaninnies and lazy Stepin’ Fetchits. Racist objects were used to open beer bottles, dust lint from coats, hold doors, catch ashes from cigarettes and lure fish, especially in the early 20th century.
The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia owns thousands of items that illustrate these and other stereotypes and attitudes about African-Americans. Housed for About 15 years in a small unused classroom at Big Rapids, Michigan’s Ferris State University, it moved into a $1.3 million, 3,500-square foot campus space in April.
“I used to claim if you named an object, I could find a racist version of it,” said David Pilgrim, Ferris State University vice president for diversity and inclusion, who created and now curates the museum.
    Pilgrim, a sociology professor, said he hopes that the museum can one day serve as a place where visitors can witness and deconstruct all kinds of stereotypes. The collection includes objects that denigrate women, gays and lesbians, Mexican-Americans and Native Americans.
    People often criticize or question the museum, and say it's best the materials are forgotten. Museum organizers say they're sometimes accused of promoting racism. Pilgrim agrees the museum's collection is offensive, and says the problems of the present can't be analyzed without remembering the past.
    Here's what he had to say about the museum's origins and mission.
    CNN: How many artifacts are currently in the museum’s collection?
    David Pilgrim: Our collection is probably about 9,000 items – and maybe half of that is being displayed. I’ll give you some general categories – the biggest is anti-black caricature objects. And then we have what I would call segregation memorabilia (such as “white only” signs). The other category is what we might call “positive” pieces or African-American heritage pieces – civil rights memorabilia, Negro League baseball memorabilia, articles about African-American achievement.
    We also have a couple thousand pieces on other groups. We have a showcase outside where we’ve placed objects about the stereotyping of Native Americans and women, to send the message that this is the next leg of the journey. I never had it as an intention in recent years that this would be the final place we built. We were in a small room, a 500-square foot room, before the renovation – and I’d like to start putting some of that material in there, and I’d like to build those collections, especially some of the material on women.
    CNN: Where did you find all these objects?
    Pilgrim: For most of my life, I collected in flea markets.  It is certainly true that once the internet exploded that became the primary way that I collected. But I’ve also gone into peoples’ homes, purchased other peoples’ collection. We’re now in a position where some people are donating their collections. But in terms of me reaching in my pocket and purchasing – most of that has been in flea markets, antique stores or internet auctions like ebay and Yahoo.
    CNN: Do you remember the first piece of racist memorabilia you acquired? How did you get it?
    Pilgrim: I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and (in the early 1970s) when I was 12 or 13, I was at one of those hybrid flea markets-slash-carnival type deals; they had merchants that had all sort of stuff they were selling. One guy, in addition to the other stuff, was selling “Mammy” salt and pepper shakers. I bought them, and I broke them… Just threw them down right in front of him.  I guess I had the makings of an activist even then. Or I had the makings of a jerk.
    I do not remember (reaction of the seller.)  This would have been the early '70s or something, at that time he could have pretty much called me whatever he wanted to.  It’s almost surreal, I remember things about the day, it being very hot, the smell from these sausage-type things making me queasy. I remember these were sitting on the edge of the table, and I remember breaking it, but I don’t remember anything else. I don’t want to take too much credit – it might also be the fact that it was just ugly, and that he (a white vendor) was selling it.  I don’t think anyone can think of an incident more in life than I can of that one.
    CNN: When did acquiring these objects cross the line from being a hobby to being a more organized collection?
    Pilgrim: When I was an undergrad I started giving lectures to community groups -- I saw the power of a visual aid -- I was speaking to all black audiences at that time, and they all got it.  Some people would give me things.  Other than the first time, I don’t think I was ever sort of a liberator collector -- someone liberating it from the merchant or the larger society. At least not consciously. It started in a fledgling kind of way, using this to educate, and then became more about that.  It’s just the power -- a picture is worth a thousand words, but a three-dimensional object got to be worth at least that too.
    CNN: What is the best argument for retaining these kind of racist artifacts and displaying them? Why do we need to remember?
    Pilgrim: One of the interesting things (critics say) is the idea that we’re a shrine to racism -- in a very real sense, that’s like saying a hospital is a shrine to disease. It’s silly. But I do understand that many Americans prefer not to discuss race in a setting where their ideas are challenged.  We don’t like talking about some periods of history, but if we don’t do that, we’re not a mature nation, and that’s not a mature education.
    In the same sense, it’s consistent with more of an eyes-on, hands-on teaching approach.
    We are doing it in almost the opposite way that a lot of people approach race -- we’re not only not avoiding it, we’re dealing with it in the most direct way you could imagine.
    If you look at any measure -- any survey, any poll that dealt with attitudes whites had toward blacks, and you look at the stereotypes that existed, those were all reflected in material culture. They become a barometer of the attitudes and abuses directed at African-Americans.  If you look today, you’ll see for some percentage of the white psyche, the stereotypes and caricatures are reflected in the pieces. I think what’s more damaging isn’t just that they reflected existing stereotypes, but that they shaped attitudes and values to come as related to blacks. We show cartoons in the museum from the '30s, '40s, '50s. Imagine you were a child and watching those – they’re not just reflecting (contemporary attitudes), they’re also shaping (future ones).
    CNN: You have a huge amount of acquisitions that reflect the pre-civil-rights-era. What are some of the most recent objects in the museum?
    Pilgrim: People are surprised to see objects made just five years ago. I can’t say it’s the newest because we acquire new stuff every day, but it includes the anti-Obama presidential election stuff.  We did buy a miniature President Obama lawn jockey. There’s no shortage of new examples. If you go to Café Press, TShirtHell.com and ebay, there’s stuff being cranked out like you wouldn’t believe.  Some of the new stuff are reproductions of old stuff. Not just to look the same, but taking the old image, from "Nigger Hair Tobacco,” for example, and placing it on the face of a clock. Old image, new object. There’s also the “Plain Brown Rapper” – this Halloween mask.
    And if there’s a race-based incident that occurs nationally, within one week we will own a material object pertaining to it. With Don Imus’ unfortunate remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, within three days we had racist stuff related to that.
    CNN: How have you seen these stereotypical representations of African-Americans change over the years?
    Pilgrim: Some of the old objects are being reproduced exactly as they were, because there’s a market for that.  I can find a mammy cookie jar that looks exactly like one from 1920. But also you see other kinds of caricature -- like the image of the brute – the black young man portrayed as criminals and menaces and rapists and whatever else. That image in the 1920s and '30s would have shown a nappy-haired black guy with a razor in his hand.  Today you’d see a guy with a gun in his hand, dressed in the manner of hip-hop culture. But it’s the same stereotype.
    One major difference today is that there is now a market for positive images of African-Americans. But there are some periods where you really have to hustle to find a lot of mass-produced positive images. But now there’s an incredible market of positive material out there, what I call redemptive pieces.  Statues or busts or sculptures of not just real African-Americans, but African-American young people in graduation gowns.
      CNN: What do you hope people take away from their visit to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia?
      Pilgrim: It’s going to sound mawkish, but I really do believe in the triumph of dialogue, otherwise I couldn’t be in higher education.  I hope we’ve created an intelligent space where people can talk about race and learn about race. When it’s all said and done we’re an academic resource. This is just another way to teach.