As a white woman, I’ve never experienced racism. When I read about segregation, racism, and the horrible ways so many human beings were treated for hundreds of years in America, I’m always puzzled how people could ever treat one another so cruelly.
A few years ago I met a man not too many years older than me. He’s an accomplished mechanical engineer working for the US Army (who just happens to be black). He told me about his childhood. He grew up in Selma, AL and his parents were active in the Civil Rights movement. He remembers someone throwing a Molotov cocktail through a window of his family’s home when he was very young. He remembers fleeing from his home in the middle of the night as it burned down. He remembers crying while he watched the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. on TV. He remembers cruel taunts. He told me that even though things are so much better than the days of the Selma marches, racism still exists in our society, even if it’s not as close to the surface. I’ve never forgotten that conversation or forgotten how racism affected that nice man I met by chance.
A new museum in Michigan traces the history of racism in America. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia has a name that may make you think it’s a place celebrating racism, but it’s the opposite. The man who collected the artifacts says its shocking displays are meant to make people think deeply about racism. The museum’s mission is to “promote racial tolerance by helping people understand the historical and contemporary expressions of intolerance.” That’s a pretty good mission.
David Pilgrim, who is black, started collecting artifacts related to segregation and racism while he was still in high school. Over the years he amassed thousands of items dating from the time of Reconstruction to just last year. I looked through some of the photos in a travelling exhibit called Hateful Things. The images turn my stomach. They also made me very sad. I just can’t imagine what it was like living in a world where hatred and violence were aimed at so many people simply because of the color of their skin.
I bet it’s hard to visit the museum. The images on the web page are shocking, brutal, difficult to see. But like many other museums about difficult historic topics, it will help shine a bright light on very distasteful subject. Museums like this are important to visit. Only when we really understand the brutality of racism and understand its history can we hope to truly end it.