Big Rapids’ Jim Crow Museum Fosters Important Conversations

Julie Bitely

| 3 min read

Students listening to Dr. Pilgrim.
“I have a goal to create a room that when people come into that room, it changes the way they talk about race.”

– Dr. David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, located on Ferris State University’s Big Rapids campus
The stated mission of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia is to “use objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.”
Winding your way through the artifacts, pictures and displays is sobering and moving. Collectively, they provide students and visitors a portal to the past, in which “Jim Crow” laws enforced racial segregation, while violence and racist caricatures created hostile environments for African Americans.
A noose hangs from a model tree, flanked by images of black lynching victims surrounded by crowds of white onlookers. A pristine “Whites Only” drinking fountain is contrasted by an unkempt and dirty “Colored” version.
It’s breathtaking. And heartbreaking.
Students take a tour of the Jim Crow Museum
Students touring the museum.
Most of the museum’s objects were created with the intent of belittling and humiliating those they caricatured. There’s an extensive collection of “Mammy” figures – think Aunt Jemima and copycats, often used to market products. Cartoons, comic books, children’s books, advertisements and more that depict African Americans as less than, grotesque or “other” come together to highlight the sheer volume and weight such negative displays put on the psyche.
Many of the pieces were collected and donated by Dr. David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the museum. After growing up in the deep South as a “multiracial, black-identified kid in a place where race was a part of everyday life,” he developed a fascination with race. His training as a sociologist and work as a professor led him to start using some of the artifacts he was collecting as teaching aides.
Eventually, he donated 3,500 such items to Ferris State University. The initial museum was born in a small 500-square-foot space, eventually settling into its current location in 2012. Pilgrim said it’s important to him that the displays present a historically accurate and unflinching look at the Jim Crow era and Civil Rights movement, while helping to foster dialogue and discussion about race in society today.
“I do believe we’re better as a nation when we can have intelligent conversations about race … when we confront the mistakes we’ve made historically … and when we look at the ugliness,” he said. “There’s a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about our history.”
The museum also includes a section devoted to notable African Americans. Prominent philosophers, athletes, musicians and politicians spotlight the contributions made by African Americans in the United States despite a history of Jim Crow and oppression.
Students having a conversation with Dr. Pilgrim.
Pilgrim said the museum serves as an important reminder to not rest on our collective laurels. Knowing what racism looks and sounds like can be an important defense against its resurgence because it certainly hasn’t disappeared. This is made evident by a display of former president Barack Obama presented in racist depictions during his campaign for and subsequent presidency.
“We do that not to suggest that the country hadn’t been making progress, but to suggest that the caricatures and stereotypes and prejudice and racism that undergird them – that hasn’t been eliminated from our society.”
Plan your visit to this important collection in person by checking information and hours here. Or, take a look at the museum’s virtual tour.
Have you visited the Jim Crow Museum in Big Rapids? What were your impressions? Share with us in the comments.
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Photos courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum

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