Skip to main content

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, features thousands of offensive artifacts and sometimes horrifying images:  slave whips, chains and signs that once dictated where African-Americans could sit, walk or get a drink of water. 

Dr. David Pilgrim, founder and director of the museum', says the intention is not to traumatize, but to teach.

"If you hear about the museum, then you form opinions in the abstract, and that's very different from what happens with people that actually visit the facility," he says. "They really get it. They understand what it is. ... We're not a shrine to racism, any more so than a hospital is a shrine to disease."

Dr. David Pilgrim, shown with items from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

Dr. David Pilgrim, shown with items from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

In the early 1830s Thomas Dartmouth Rice created the antebellum character Jim Crow. "Daddy Rice" was a white actor who performed, in blackface, a song-and-dance whose exaggerations popularized racially demeaning minstrel shows. The name "Jim Crow" came to denote segregation in the 19th century when Southern and Border states passed "Jim Crow laws," legitimizing a racial caste system.

The Jim Crow Museum houses more than 10,000 artifacts; the majority of the objects were created between the 1870s and the 1960s. The largest portion of the museum's holdings is anti-black memorabilia, for example, mammy candles, Nellie fishing lures, picaninny ashtrays, sambo masks, and lawn jockeys. The museum also displays Jim Crow memorabilia—books, signs, tickets, brochures, and photographs—that promoted racial segregation.

Pilgrim's goal in founding the museum has been to open people's eyes, hearts and minds to the reality of Jim Crow. 

"We are 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," Pilgrim says.

For more on the Jim Crow Museum click here.