“I grew up in Dixie Garden in Toulminville. Around the sixth grade, we moved to Prichard. That was 1968, during the beginning of desegregation. I had white classmates at Prichard Jr. High, and there was a lot of hatred by the white community as we walked to school. I later went to Mattie T. Blount, Prichard’s all-Black high school. I was on the chess team, and it shocked Alabama when a team from Blount won the state. The fights between black and white students were bad during integration at Vigor High School, also in Prichard. A.J. Cooper was the city’s first black mayor, and he took me under his wing. His home was shot into a couple of times. I had good teachers and mentors and received a good education in Prichard, despite the turmoil of the times.
I travel the country and meet people from Prichard who are playwrights, architects and engineers. When it was clear integration was going to happen, many whites left and took the tax base with them. People like me also left. It is natural to want to leave the place where you grow up, but I wanted to get out of the South. I still feel like I am from Mobile, but it has been many decades since I lived there. I am writing a memoir and my chapter, A Hard Place, is about growing up in Prichard.
They had carnivals and flea markets on Davis Avenue. When I was 11 or 12, I picked up an object from one of the tables that sold Black memorabilia. I bought the mammy cookie jar and threw it down. I didn’t like it. But after that, I started thinking about racist objects and collecting them.
A number of us went to Jarvis Christian College, a historically black college in Hawkins, Texas. In history they taught us what it was like to live under Jim Crow. A teacher brought in a chauffeur’s cap and asked what it had to do with Jim Crow. He said our answers were wrong and explained that during that time there were middle class African Americans who wanted nice houses and cars. But a black man driving a new car risked his life. If he was pulled over, he put on the chauffeur’s cap to show the car didn’t belong to him. The cap showed he wasn’t a threat and he knew his place in society.
I had several hundred pieces by the time I got to Jarvis. Postcards, toys, games, you name an everyday object and there is a racist version of it. I thought if my professor could use that one cap to teach, how much more could I do with the pieces I had? I became a sociologist and taught at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. I had thousands of objects with every conceivable distortion of black people in two-and three-dimensional objects. They reflected the attitudes of the time they were made and also shaped new attitudes. I brought pieces into class and showed my students the power of objects. It was a way to recognize tastes, values and behaviors.
We opened the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in 2012. I feared it would be offensive to Black people, but that was not the case. People come from all over the world and we have deep conversations. We won’t be who we need to be until we have the difficult conversations about race. There is learning going on in our museum. We show the resiliency of African Americans and Americans more broadly. We are called the Jim Crow museum, but have pieces with black people pushing back. We also have pieces by Black artists using art to deconstruct racism and showing African American achievement despite Jim Crow.
There are 7-8,000 pieces in the museum and just as many in storage. Every day more pieces arrive in our mailbox that people send us.
I also collect objects that defame and mock women. I didn’t recognize the prevalence of objects that defame women and how desensitized I was to that until I started collecting. When you are surrounded by something, it becomes normal. In our museum, people look at thousands of pieces that they have seen, but they have never really seen. Our task is to get people to open their eyes and see what these pieces really say. I am still learning from objects.
I am hearing a level of racial discourse that I heard in Mobile when George Wallace was governor. We will benefit from having engaged conversations about race and we will be punished if we don’t. There has to be places where you can try to understand what happened. I have seen the worst of this country, but I believe in the city on the hill that President Reagan talked about. I believe that a better America is possible, but it will be led by thoughtful people who aren’t afraid to look at the warts and build a better place together.”
(This story is from my interview with Dr. David Pilgrim and from his TEDx Talk, My Racial Journey, Using Hateful Items as teaching tools. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbMKKqRBbLI)