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A Museum Teaches Tolerance Through Jim Crow

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A Museum Teaches Tolerance Through Jim Crow


A Museum Teaches Tolerance Through Jim Crow

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The ugliness of racism is on full display at a new museum in Michigan. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, at Ferris State University, features thousands of troubling artifacts and sometimes, horrifying images. Amy Robinson, from member station WCMU, visited the museum for its opening.

AMY ROBINSON, BYLINE: Slave whips and chains; signs dictating where African-Americans could sit, walk or get a drink of water; teddy bears turned into messengers of hate.

ANDY KARAFA: There's this white, little, fluffy thing with a cute, little red bow; and this white T-shirt, and it reads: I love niggers that are dead.

ROBINSON: Andy Karafa directs the Jim Crow Museum. The items on display show the full range of racial stereotypes. There are mammies, pickaninnies and sambos. One whole section is dedicated to the portrayal of black children as alligator bait.

DAVID PILGRIM: And I have to tell you this - if you hear about the museum, then you form opinions in the abstract. And that's very different from what happens with the people that actually visit the facility. They really get it. They understand what it is.

ROBINSON: Curator and founder of the museum, Professor David Pilgrim, says the intention of the Jim Crow Museum is not to traumatize, but to teach.

PILGRIM: We're not a shrine to racism any more so than a hospital is a shrine to disease.

ROBINSON: In the middle of the museum, you find the toughest room of all, the Jim Crow Violence Room. When you step inside, you're confronted with a replica of a lynching tree. There's a display of Ku Klux Klan robes; they had special robes for the women. And just to the left is a video montage of African-Americans being beaten, hanged and burned.


KARAFA: The idea of having the violence in the center of the museum is Jim Crow, as a system, wouldn't have worked without it - either actual violence, or the threat of violence.

ROBINSON: As Karafa stands by the door, visitors leave the Violence Room shaken.


ROBINSON: Terrible, says Rowena Hamel, at a loss. She was choked up. Hamel had lived through the Jim Crow era in an all-white community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

HAMEL: I can't believe that I'm 84 years old, and didn't realize. I've learned so much today. How could I have not seen this? I must have just been blind to it.

ROBINSON: Opening eyes, hearts and minds is the goal of Professor Pilgrim. It took eight years, and more than a million dollars, to create the permanent home for his collection; a memorial of hate, aimed at teaching tolerance.

PILGRIM: We're a resource that does the thing that many Americans don't want to do, and that is to talk about race in a direct way.

ROBINSON: Pilgrim continues to collect new items, many of them now aimed at President Barack Obama; including posters that show the president being lynched.

PILGRIM: Unfortunately, it appears that there will always be new caricatures created, and new caricature objects created. For us, they just become opportunities to teach.

ROBINSON: It's been decades since Professor Pilgrim bought his first racist object. He says he was 12 or 13. He doesn't remember what it was, but he remembers he hated it, and threw it on the ground and smashed it. Today, 9,000 hateful items later, he seeks out ugly artifacts.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Robinson.



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