There is a “Jim Crow Museum” at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, and it is not, to quote its official statement, “a shrine to racism.” It is, on the other hand, a testament to the resilience of Black Americans, established to “use objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.”
The museum’s collection of racist objects began in the 1970s, when David Pilgrim, former professor of sociology and now Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at Ferris State, began collecting these objects in flea markets across the country. Pilgrim decided to donate the collection to the university in 1996, he says, because the objects “needed a real home.” The museum was opened to the public in 2012 in a new facility, after having been stored in a small space and occasionally used as a teaching tool for classes for 15 years.
The Jim Crow Museum is now home to more than 10,000 racist objects, primarily from the 1870s to 1960s. Its collection contains mammy figurines, lawn jockeys, masks, and other everyday objects that depict offensively caricatured Black people, in addition to Jim Crow–era memorabilia, such as books, signs, and brochures that promoted segregation and anti-Black propaganda.
A visit to this museum is not an easy experience. It is intended to be disturbing and thought-provoking. It offers a comprehensive timeline of the Black American experience in the United States, and displays the ugly truths of unjust violence and unquestioned racism in every aspect of American life—critical issues that have not been resolved. The Jim Crow Museum aims to combat ignorance and raise awareness of deep-rooted racial intolerance.
Know Before You Go
The museum is located in the lower level of Ferris State University's FLITE Building. Admission is free.