Teaching tolerance using racist memorabilia

Oct 15, 2013

David Pilgrim in the Museum of Racist Memorabilia
Credit Ferris State University

The nation’s long struggle with racial discrimination has left some litter behind: objects some now call “contemptible collectibles”. Some of these are on display inside the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids. Its founder and curator is David Pilgrim, the university’s vice-president for diversity and inclusion. He speaks Thursday, October 16th, at 5:30 p.m. at Western Michigan University in the Richmond Center for Visual Arts, Room 2008. Pilgrim's talk is cosponsored by the Gwen Frostic School of Art, WMU's Art Education Program, the Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations, and by the Kalamazoo Black Arts and Cultural Center.

Pilgrim, who is black, began collecting racist objects while he was still in school. He smashed the first one immediately after buying it but began holding on to the ones that followed. Pilgrim says he isn’t exactly sure why he became fascinated by everyday objects that defamed African-Americans as “mammies, and toms, and sambos”. Over three decades he traveled the country, acquiring objects that he could afford, everything from ashtrays to plates, toys, and games to postcards.

“These things should be in a museum or a  garbage can.”

 Pilgrim began working on finding a permanent home for the collection after he came to Ferris in the early 1990’s. Thanks to financial support from the DTE Energy Foundation and the university, it grew from a single 500-square-foot room into its own building that opened last year.

Although he admits that collecting racist objects at times took a personal toll, Pilgrim says the effort is worth it if they become tools that help people reach a deeper understanding of racial discrimination and intolerance. The museum has a room devoted to dialog and encourages visitors to talk about their reactions to the artifacts on display. As Pilgrim puts it, “These things should be in a museum or a garbage can.”

Pilgrim says no one who has actually visited the museum considers it to be a “shrine to racism”. He’s also begun collecting objects that denigrate other minority groups. And Pilgrim says he also hopes to one day open a museum that displays objects connected to sexism and inequality between men and women in American society.