Racist Relics

Jim Crow Museum punctuates Ferris’ tumultuous racial history

by Published: Dec 5, 2012

The Ferris cam­pus was in chaos nearly 50 years ago as race riots threat­ened to tear the uni­ver­sity apart.

Today, the Jim Crow Museum uti­lizes its vast col­lec­tion of his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary racist mem­o­ra­bilia to repair racial rela­tions through edu­ca­tion and with­out exon­er­at­ing history.

Vice President of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion Dr. David Pilgrim donated over 3,000 objects to the museum in 1996.

“Objects reflect and shape the atti­tudes we have about a group of peo­ple,” Pilgram said.

Among the items on dis­play are pic­tures and arti­cles detail­ing the 1968 Ferris race riots. The sit­u­a­tion came to a head in May 1969, fol­low­ing mul­ti­ple arrests by state police dur­ing a sit-in at the Administration Building.

In March 1968, the police were rushed to cam­pus after receiv­ing a call from then-Ferris President Dr. Victor Spathelf.

Police arrested 263 African Americans for tres­pass­ing, accord­ing to an Associated Press pub­li­ca­tion on May 20, 1968, which recapped the events as back­ground for a new report.

According to the arti­cle, mul­ti­ple Ku Klux Klan posters were found hang­ing in the com­mon areas of a res­i­dence hall. The series of sto­ries can be viewed via an online scrap­book col­lec­tion on the university’s website.

The scrap­book was cre­ated by cur­rent Chairman of the Ferris Board of Trustees Ron Snead, who attended Ferris dur­ing the Civil Rights Movement. Snead was the President of the Ferris chap­ter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was among those arrested dur­ing cam­pus protests.

“One of the things we want to do is to address the belief among some that issues con­cern­ing race are con­fined to the past,” Pilgrim said. “The museum forces peo­ple to have a con­ver­sa­tion about race. It’s hard not to when you’re in that room.”

May 1968 saw con­tin­ued racial ten­sion. Reportedly, a Molotov cock­tail was thrown, and riot­ers dam­aged 33 cars in the ensu­ing melee. Racial brawls erupted on cam­pus, injur­ing 14 people.

“The arti­facts are amaz­ing. I’ve never seen [them] in per­son,” Ferris sopho­more lib­eral arts major Shannon Holmquist said. “It’s just really sad.”

Today, the museum, which last year moved to the base­ment of FLITE, show­cases more than 7,000 items.

Pilgrim pur­chased his first item when he was an ado­les­cent. The first item was a salt­shaker with racist over­tures. He inten­tion­ally smashed the item on the ground shortly after its purchase.

The term Jim Crow is syn­ony­mous with racial injus­tice sys­tems incor­po­rated in post-Civil War America, which included the lynch­ing of African Americans and the seg­re­ga­tion sys­tem fused in not only schools, but daily life as well.

The museum also focuses on con­tro­ver­sial court rul­ings regard­ing race. In the Supreme Court’s 1954 rul­ing in Brown vs. The Board of Education, school sys­tems were asked to de-segregate as the legal­ity of seg­re­ga­tion was over­turned. But it was a rul­ing with­out true enforce­ment action, accord­ing to Neil Baumgartner, a staff docent for the museum.

Pilgrim attended a seg­re­gated ele­men­tary school in Alabama dur­ing the 1970s. His mid­dle school attempted to inte­grate, but was met with resis­tance by the stu­dents’ par­ents and other adults in the com­mu­nity. The resis­tance was some­times dis­played with phys­i­cal violence.

Physical vio­lence on racial grounds did not end with the con­clu­sion of the Civil Rights era.

Also found in the museum is an “I am Trayvon” hoodie. The sweat­shirt was a reac­tionary item cre­ated to raise racial dis­crim­i­na­tory aware­ness fol­low­ing the February 2012 death of 17-year-old high school stu­dent Trayvon Martin. Martin was allegedly shot and killed by George Zimmerman, Florida res­i­dent and neigh­bor­hood watch coordinator.

Zimmerman claimed the shoot­ing was in self-defense, although Martin was not found in pos­ses­sion of a weapon. On the national front, alleged racial bias was seen as a deter­rent for Zimmerman’s arrest. He was later arraigned on second-degree mur­der charges and is await­ing trial.

On the Jim Crow Museum web­site, vis­i­tors will find a shoot­ing tar­get in the like­ness of Trayvon that was avail­able for sale through an unknown dis­trib­u­tor. The tar­get is shown with a black hoodie, a bag of Skittles and a can of iced-tea—all items that were on the vic­tim at the time of death. All of the tar­gets, which were pro­duced with the explicit pur­pose to make money, were sold, accord­ing to Pilgrim.

The museum is open Monday through Friday from noon until 5 p.m. More infor­ma­tion can be found online at fer​ris​.edu/​j​i​m​c​r​ow/.