New Racism Museum Reveals the Ugly Truth Behind Aunt Jemima

David Pilgrim has spent decades collecting racist pictures, signs, and knick-knacks. Now he's sharing his collection with the world.

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Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

David Pilgrim was 12 years old when he bought his first racist object at a flea market: a saltshaker in the shape of a Mammy. As a young black boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama, he'd seen similar knick-knacks in the homes of friends and neighbors, and he instinctively hated them. As soon as he handed over his money, he threw his purchase to the ground and shattered it into pieces.

Pilgrim's story brings to mind the young biblical Abraham, smashing idols in his father's shop. But that Mammy was the only racist icon Pilgrim ever destroyed. Today he owns thousands of them: cereal boxes, statuettes, whites-only signs, and postcards of black men being whipped and hung. The public will soon be able to see his entire collection and more at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which opens April 26 at Ferris University in Michigan where Pilgrim spent years as a sociology professor.

The museum is divided into sections, each reflecting a different distorted vision of black people in America. One features Uncle Toms: cheerful, servile black men like Uncle Ben or the chef on the Cream of Wheat box. Another showcases "brutes": muscular ogres who lurk in dark alleys and ravish white women. Most of the objects predate civil rights, but there's a section devoted to modern racism: It includes dozens of caricatures of President Barack Obama as a monkey, a terrorist, and a watermelon-eating "coon."

Pilgrim spoke to me about his lifelong hobby and what he hopes Americans will see as they wander through his disturbing hall of mirrors. 

Interview follows slideshow

What made you throw that Mammy saltshaker on the ground all those years ago?

It would be great if I had a deep, philosophical answer, but on a gut level, I just didn't like it. In those days, a lot of people, including blacks, had those sorts of objects in their homes, and I hated them. Clearly they didn't see them as negative in the same way I did. In any case, I haven't intentionally broken one since.

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David Pilgrim (Image courtesy of Ferris University)

What made you start collecting objects like those to keep instead of destroy?

I went to a historically black college, Jarvis Christian College in Texas, and in addition to teaching the usual math and science, our professors would tell us stories of Jim Crow. One day, one of my professors came into the classroom with a chauffer's cap. He set the hat down and asked what historical significance it had.

Now, the obvious answer was that blacks were denied many opportunities, and chauffeuring was one of the few jobs open to them. But that was not the right answer. He told us that a lot of professional middle-class blacks in those days always traveled with a chauffer's hat. The reason: If they were driving a nice new car through a small southern town, they didn't want police officers, or any other whites, to know the car belonged to them.

I remember that story so vividly. No object has any meaning other than what we assign to it. But that was an incredible meaning to assign to an object that, on the surface, had little to do with racism.

How about the more obviously racist objects, like ashtrays in the shape of black men with giant mouths? What was the intention behind those things?

You know, when I was younger, I always thought of propaganda as grainy old films or brochures. But an ashtray can be propaganda. In a deliberate way, it can help shape perceptions about a group of people. It can support everyday practices and official policies against those people. If you didn't want black people to vote, to live in your neighborhood, or to marry outside of their own race, these objects became a way to shape those attitudes. That's why even an ashtray can have a lot of cultural utility.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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