Museum Curator Says 'Americans Like History That Can Be Celebrated At Picnics' - Not The Bad Stuff

Feb 15, 2021

George Floyd’s death ignited protests and conversations around race relations last year. But racial tensions have existed for many years in America. A traveling exhibition featuring racist imagery has landed at Northern Illinois University. The goal is to inspire more discussions.  

Aunt Jemima on a pancake box, board games, books and other racist items are some of the objects that can be seen in the “Hateful Things” exhibition at NIU’s Pick Museum of Anthropology.

Rachelle Wilson, the curator of the museum, said the organization has a social justice-driven mission and the events that happened over the summer show that racism needs to be talked about in the community.

“These are issues that we're facing every single day, and we should be a part of those conversations and bringing this particular exhibit in is opening the doors for those conversations,” Wilson said. “In a way that is almost a safe space for that dialogue to be happening.”

Wilson said some of today’s advertisements still have these types of images.  She is suggesting that this needs to be discussed as part of the effort to end systemic racism in America.

Wilson explained that the desire to have the exhibit at the school wasn’t prompted by this summer’s events. The planning started two years ago. The museum partnered with NIU’s Center for Black Studies to bring the display to the campus.

Joseph Flynn is the associate director of academic affairs for the center. He advised he first learned about the exhibit from a TV news report several years ago. When he joined the Center for Black Studies it crossed his mind again. He said he wants individuals to understand how some people used resources to systematically marginalize an entire group of people.

“The fact of the matter is that these images were able to sustain for well over a century, because white folks had an incredible amount of power in shaping media, in shaping popular culture, in shaping access to resources,” Flynn said.

This traveling display originated from Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Michigan. David Pilgrim is the founder and curator of the museum. The museum opened for public viewing in 2012 but Pilgrim said he began collecting such things decades earlier, as a youth.

Pilgrim grew up in Alabama during the end of the Jim Crow era. He said he was fascinated with these misrepresentations of Black people. He mentioned that when he attended Jarvis Christian College in Texas, he began to understand segregation -- and the Jim Crow racial hierarchy -- better.

Pilgrim said he is sometimes asked, “Why do you focus on negative history?” He explained that Americans like history that can be celebrated at picnics and parades but not the bad stuff.

“But a mature nation wouldn't just get to pick and choose which parts of its past it wants to understand,” he stated. “There are many things in Americans in the history of this country --  of the past of this country, which are praiseworthy, but there are many that are not.”

So, Pilgrim said, the exhibit’s goal is to correct historical accounts and thus encourage people to have intelligent discussions about race and racism.

Flynn said the artifacts in the exhibit are not just Black history but our country’s history and that the items show how some white people dehumanized Blacks.

Wilson underlines Flynn’s message by sharing what she saw growing up. She suggests that some whites will face their own history when they see the exhibit.

“Who do you think was collecting these things? Right? It's us. It's white people,” Wilson emphasized. “I mean, I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I think most of us, when we walk into these spaces and we see these items, we can probably draw back to our own childhood and remember seeing a mammie cookie jar on the countertop.”

Flynn shared that he hopes people understand the pervasiveness of these artifacts.

“These images like the mammie figure or the Uncle Tom or the pickaninny -- those were created as a way of appeasing the tastes and proclivities of white folks.”

Pilgrim said coming into the museum doesn’t fix things. But it can be the beginning of the work that needs to be done.

“And then when you start that work, also with an eye toward," he added. " ‘What is it I as an individual can do to make this a more democratic egalitarian culture?’”

Pilgrim said the Jim Crow Museum also shows the resilience of African American people and it’s a reminder of how the race is still standing despite the atrocities of the past.

The exhibit features 39 pieces. It opens at the Pick Museum Feb. 2 and runs through April 9. A virtual tour will take place opening day on the Pick Museum of Anthropology’s Facebook page.  The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia also has a virtual tour.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, individuals interested in seeing the exhibit in-person at NIU must reserve tickets in advance.

The NIU exhibit is co-sponsored by the Pick Museum of Anthropology, the Center for Black Studies at NIU, and the Friends of the NIU Libraries. 

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.