Founder of Jim Crow Museum gives talk on teaching racism

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 - 10:15pm

Dr. David Pilgrim, the head of the Jim Crow museum in Big Rapids Michigan, speaks about his experiences setting up the Jim Crow museum

Dr. David Pilgrim, the head of the Jim Crow museum in Big Rapids Michigan, speaks about his experiences setting up the Jim Crow museum Buy this photo
Aaron Baker/Daily

David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University spoke at the University of Michigan Museum of Art Tuesday about promoting social justice and tolerance through the artifacts in the Jim Crow Museum, the nation’s largest collection of racist artifacts. The Stern Auditorium was packed with students and Ann Arbor residents.

Pilgrim is the vice president for Diversity and Inclusion at Ferris State and an expert on issues related to diversity, multiculturalism and race relations. In the mid-1990s, Pilgrim donated his personal collection of 2,000 artifacts to the university. In 2012, he was able to open the Jim Crow Museum due to a donation made by DTE Energy. The museum now receives hundreds of relic donations annually and consists of over 9,000 objects.

The museum houses thousands of racist objects with the goal of educating people and using “objects of intolerance to teach tolerance.” The objects themselves range from postcards to newspaper clippings to lynching trees. Depictions of blackface and caricatures of Black people are displayed in a variety of mediums such as license plates and kitchen tools.

“Our approach is to document, not to serve as a shrine to racism, but to document the existence through material objects of attitudes, taste and values that permeated our culture,” Pilgrim said.

The museum is formatted so people can walk through and view the artifacts without a guide.

“We want people to experience the museum the way they experience it,” Pilgrim said.

Pilgrim spoke about the ways in which to conduct meaningful conversations about race. He described the tendency of educated people to “crush” ignorant ideas or thoughts that are not developed when having race conversations.

“Sometimes when you’re an instructor, there is this temptation to punish your students’ ignorance ... If you crush a person, you can’t teach them anything,” Pilgrim said.

LSA junior Alice Hanlon commented on Pilgrim’s idea of conducting meaningful conversations about race.

“(Using objects of intolerance to teach) It’s definitely a position that’s kind of against what we’ve been taught, especially in a very liberal place like Ann Arbor, I think we are pretty censored with good intentions,” Hanlon said. “But I think people do often feel like they have to kind of walk on eggshells when talking about things like this, like talking about race. I definitely think Dr. Pilgrim brought up so many good points about teaching and being able to have these conversations without feeling like you’re going to offend anyone just to actually learn.”

In a similar vein at the University, the Bentley Historical Library is expanding its efforts to record the histories of Black Americans on campus. 

“Having these records digitized is important because student activism is often erased in U-M's diversity effort,” LSA senior Kayla McKinney, Black Student Union speaker told The Daily last week. 

Pilgrim concluded by speaking about the future expansion of the museum and the importance of future dialogues about race.

“We’ve got to grow up as a nation,” Pilgrim said. “We’ve got to be able to have real conversations.” 

More like this