Can the Jim Crow Racism Museum Help Teach Tolerance?

Michigan's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which will have its grand opening on April 26, says it has the largest collection of artifacts from the segregation era

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A former sociology professor has used his 2,000-piece collection of racist memorabilia to start a museum dedicated to the worst excesses of the segregation era.  The exhibits range from a full-size replica of a lynching tree to a T-shirt that reads “Obama in ’08,” accompanied by a cartoon monkey holding a banana. On one wall, a poster shows four young black children sitting by a river, with the caption “Alligator bait.”

The objects “should either be in a garbage can or a museum,” according to David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The former professor at Michigan’s Ferris State University started the collection as a teenager in Alabama during the 1970s and donated it to the school in 1996. Now, thanks to donors, it has a permanent home in an exhibition hall on campus. The venue will have its grand-opening ceremony on April 26, the Associated Press reported.

The museum says it has amassed the nation’s largest public collection of artifacts spanning the segregation era and features many objects from the civil rights movement up to the present.

Pilgrim, who is black, told the AP that the controversial nature of the objects is justified. The museum isn’t a “shrine to racism,” he said, but rather is meant to “get people to think deeply.”

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Discussing race in a museum setting is a touchy subject. The Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture aims to tell the story of black life in America. But with the opening scheduled for 2015, the museum is still grappling with the question of what story to tell and how to tell it.

The Jim Crow Museum is meant to delve into that story and go beyond just stimulating sadness or anger in viewers, which is why Pilgrim created a “room of dialogue” as the last stop of the tour, designed to encourage people to discuss what they have seen. “The only real value of the museum has ever been to really engage people in a dialogue,” he said.

MORE: Inside the Racist Mind