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DAVID PILGRIM bought his first piece of racist memorabilia in the early 1970s, when he was a youngster in Mobile, Alabama. It was a set of salt and pepper shakers meant to caricature African Americans. “I purchased it and broke it” on purpose, recalls Pilgrim, who is black. Yet over the next few decades, he amassed a sizable collection of what he calls “contemptible collectibles”—once-common household objects and products that mock and stereotype black people.

David Pilgrim Ferris State University
 

PM Press

In 1996, Pilgrim transformed his 3,200-item collection into the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Michigan’s Ferris State University, where he teaches sociology. He presents a selection of these appalling objects and images in his new book, Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice. As the title implies, the book isn’t merely an exercise in shock value. It lays out the philosophy behind Pilgrim’s work as a scholar and an activist: that only by acknowledging these artifacts and their persistence in American culture can we honestly confront our not-so-distant past.

Mother Jones: What made you decide to turn your collection into a museum?

David Pilgrim: When I got to Michigan, someone mentioned that they knew this elderly black woman who was an antiques dealer. After many months, she agreed to let me see her personal collection. It was just objects floor to ceiling in a barnlike structure. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume. It shook me! I thought I’d seen everything. What she had was a testimony to—this is going to sound weird—not just the creativity of racism, but the diversity in it. I remember that day thinking that I wanted to do what she’d done, but in a different way.

“All these millions, and I mean literally millions, of objects were integral to maintaining Jim Crow.”

MJ: How popular were these collectibles?

DP: They were everyday objects in a lot of people’s homes, including African Americans’. [The antiques collector] had postcards, posters. She had records, 78s. She had ashtrays. She had a racist bell. I think she had the game called Chopped Up Niggers—it’s a puzzle. She told me that she hadn’t paid very much for many of those pieces because at the time people were throwing stuff away. Some people were ashamed.

“Nigger Milk,” a 1916 magazine advertisement that Pilgrim bought in 1988 Courtesy of David Pilgrim/PM Press

MJ: Why own them in the first place?

DP: These toys, games, sheet music about “coons” and “darkies”—all these millions, and I mean literally millions, of objects—were integral to maintaining Jim Crow. Jim Crow could not work without violence, real violence, but also the threat of violence and the depiction of violence. There are a number of games in the museum where you throw things at black people: “hit the nigger” or “hit the Negro” games. If you had such a game, you were actually creating safe spaces to do that.

An early 1900s game that depicted an African American as a target Courtesy of David Pilgrim/PM Press

MJ: Do you also keep track of racist images and memorabilia online?

DP: Absolutely. With the power of the internet and social media, one person can do the damage that in the old days it took many to do. When you have a race-based incident—and I make it my business to look—within one week there are material objects that reflect that incident in a racist way: lunch boxes, posters, puzzles, T-shirts, pillows. President Obama has been an industry for racist objects. He has been portrayed as a witch doctor, a Rastus character from Cream of Wheat, as a Sambo, as an Uncle Tom—and also as gay, as transgender, as communist, as socialist, as a terrorist, as a Muslim. [Many of the] images that appear online are old. The images from the old “coon” songs from the late 1800s and early 1900s show up in memes, and people don’t realize they’re older images.

“President Obama has been an industry for racist objects.”

A 1940s creamer or pitcher from Pilgrim’s collection Courtesy of David Pilgrim/PM Press
 

1950s fishing lure Courtesy of David Pilgrim/PM Press

MJ: What sort of people collect this stuff?

DP: There are some who want to educate. I’ve met collectors who collect to destroy the pieces. But by far the biggest segment are speculators who know that a McCoy cookie jar was $3 and you can get several hundred dollars for it now.

MJ: Do you see a role for your collection in today’s movement for racial equality?

DP: One of the questions I get often is why we’re still having these conversations. And my answer is: The objects are still being made, they’re still being sold and distributed. There’s not an image in the museum that’s not being reproduced in some way. Secondly, the reason we still have these discussions is because race still matters. But Americans don’t often talk about it in places where their ideas are challenged. We want our museum to be safe but uncomfortable.

MJ: I found myself hiding your book from my kids. At what age do you think it’s okay to expose children to this stuff?

DP: I believe that young people—8, 9, 10—should have discussions appropriate to their age about race. But no one under 12 can come into the museum by themselves, and we discourage parents from bringing them. Right in the center of the room is a lynching tree. Even though it’s contextualized, it can be a house of horrors.

A ceramic figure from the 1950s Courtesy of David Pilgrim/PM Press

Pilgrim writes that historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. found this the most disturbing image in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. It is from an unknown book. Courtesy of David Pilgrim/PM Press

Early 1900s postcard Courtesy of David Pilgrim/PM Press

“Be-Bop the Jivin Jigger” toy Courtesy of David Pilgrim/PM Press

1950s bar set Courtesy of David Pilgrim/PM Press

 

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We have a considerable $390,000 gap in our online fundraising budget that we have to close by June 30. There is no wiggle room, we've already cut everything we can, and we urgently need more readers to pitch in—especially from this specific blurb you're reading right now.

We'll also be quite transparent and level-headed with you about this.

In "News Never Pays," our fearless CEO, Monika Bauerlein, connects the dots on several concerning media trends that, taken together, expose the fallacy behind the tragic state of journalism right now: That the marketplace will take care of providing the free and independent press citizens in a democracy need, and the Next New Thing to invest millions in will fix the problem. Bottom line: Journalism that serves the people needs the support of the people. That's the Next New Thing.

And it's what MoJo and our community of readers have been doing for 47 years now.

But staying afloat is harder than ever.

In "This Is Not a Crisis. It's The New Normal," we explain, as matter-of-factly as we can, what exactly our finances look like, why this moment is particularly urgent, and how we can best communicate that without screaming OMG PLEASE HELP over and over. We also touch on our history and how our nonprofit model makes Mother Jones different than most of the news out there: Letting us go deep, focus on underreported beats, and bring unique perspectives to the day's news.

You're here for reporting like that, not fundraising, but one cannot exist without the other, and it's vitally important that we hit our intimidating $390,000 number in online donations by June 30.

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