How America Bought and Sold Racism, and Why it Still Matters

Excerpted with permission from Collectors Weekly

Today, very few white Americans openly celebrate the horrors of Black enslavement—most refuse to recognize the brutal nature of the institution or actively seek to distance themselves from it. “The modern American sees slavery as a regrettable period when Blacks worked without wages,” writes Dr. David Pilgrim, the vice president for diversity and inclusion and a sociology professor at Ferris State University, and the author of Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice, who has spent his life studying the artifacts that have perpetuated racist stereotypes.

The urge to forget this stain on our nation’s history is everywhere. In Texas, McGraw-Hill recently distributed a high-school geography textbook that refers to American slaves as immigrant workers. At Southern plantation museums that romanticize the idea of genteel antebellum culture, the bleak and violent reality of enslaved plantation life is whitewashed and glossed over. Discussions about how slavery led to modern-day racism are often met with white defensiveness. How many times have Black people heard this line? “Slavery happened a long time ago. You need to get over it.”

The truth is when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the economic subjugation of African Americans, and the terrorism used to maintain it, did not come to a grinding halt. The Jim Crow racial caste system that emerged 12 years after the Civil War ended in 1865 was just as violent and oppressive as slavery—and it lasted nearly a century. Up through Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, Black people across the country, in Northern states as well as Southern ones, were routinely humiliated, menaced, tortured and beaten to death, and blocked from participating in business and public life. Thanks to smartphone and social-media technology, we’re seeing how such violence continues in 2015, 50 years after the height of the Civil Rights movement.

Just last month, Ben Fields, a white sheriff’s deputy in Columbia, South Carolina, responded to an uncooperative African American schoolgirl by putting her in a chokehold, dragging her out of her school desk, and throwing her body across the room. In June, Eric Casebolt, a white police officer in McKinney, Texas, was recorded grabbing Dajerria Becton, a seated 15-year-old Black girl in a bikini, turning her over, and pinning her down, even though she was not involved in the incident at hand. A year ago, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy, was shot and killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, for carrying a toy gun, and when his 14-year-old sister ran to him, police wrestled her to the ground and handcuffed her. In 2013, a Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watch crime captain George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old Black boy walking home from the store.

To understand why Black kids like these are subjected to so much hostility and abuse, you have to look at the toxic beliefs white Americans embraced during slavery and throughout the Jim Crow era, which still pollute our culture today. These include the absurd notions that Black people don’t feel pain, that without strict control Black people are inclined to violence, and that Black children are not innocents, but wild, unruly animals that need to be tamed. The ugly history of such ideas are documented in explicit detail at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, located at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, a place Dr. David Pilgrim, the museum founder, sometimes refers to as a “Black Holocaust museum.” The museum is featured in Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.

To justify the exclusion of and violence toward African Americans after the Civil War, pop culture—encompassing everything from mass media and entertainment to product advertising and tchotchkes—churned out objects, images, songs and stories designed to reinforce widespread beliefs about white supremacy and Black inferiority. Pilgrim has pulled together some 12,000 examples of such so-called “Black memorabilia,” and he clearly explains the meaning and purpose behind them—both at the museum and in his new book, Understanding Jim Crow, published by the nonprofit wing of PM Press, Friends of PM, which funded the book through a Kickstarter campaign this fall.

America has a long history of casual brutality toward African Americans, and Understanding Jim Crow puts the current violence into context. It explains, for example, how in the late 19th century, nearly every city had a carnival with a game known as “African Dodger” or “Hit the Coon,” in which white revelers paid to throw baseballs, or rocks, at a Black man’s head—not a fake wooden head, but an actual person sticking his head through a painted canvas in the booth. Even children were desensitized through toys, like the McLoughlin Brothers’ board game Chopped Up Niggers.

“If you’re trying to convince yourself, the nation, and Black people themselves that Black people are not equal, then you come up with ideas like this: Black people don’t feel pain the same way white people do, Black people deserve to be hit, it’s fun to hit Black people,” Pilgrim tells me.

African Dodger wasn’t even the worst of it. The public lynching of Black people was also a popular, savage spectacle: According to the book, scholars have recorded 3,440 public lynchings of Black men and women on American soil between 1882 and 1968, which doesn’t account for undocumented lynchings or those that happened under the cover of night. The descriptions of these lynchings are shockingly, upsettingly gruesome. How horrific did they get? A mob of hundreds of white people would participate in slowly torturing the victims, first humiliating and mutilating them, then beating them until they were disfigured, and finally killing them.

“In 1930s Florida, Claude Neal was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman,” Pilgrim tells me. “He probably didn’t. But either way, we don’t know because he never got a trial. A mob took him from jail, brutally beat him, and eventually hanged him and drug his dead body through town. During the beating, someone from the crowd—and we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of people—cut off his genitalia and then made him eat it and say he liked it. This happened in the light of day. That brutality seems almost incomprehensible to our brains today, but it happened thousands of times all over this nation.”

This story and others in the book are painful to read, but Pilgrim thinks it’s important that Americans examine the evidence of our nation’s racist history, even if it hurts. In the museum, he’s gathered appalling souvenir postcards of lynchings and “whites only” segregation signs alongside depictions of Black people as docile, hapless buffoons or inherently violent or sexually aggressive subhuman creatures.

Stock caricatures such as Mammy, Uncle Tom, Sambo, pickaninny children, coon, Jezebel, Sapphire and the Black brute were employed to spread these messages to millions of people. Companies mass-produced these images in every form—including postcards, cleaning products, toys and games, ceramic figurines, ashtrays, cast-iron banks, children’s books, dinnerware, songbooks, tea towels, cookie jars, matchbooks, magazines, movies, gag gifts, salt-and-pepper shakers, planters, fishing lures, trade cards, ads, records and tobacco tins. If you lived during the Jim Crow era, you’d encounter such caricatures everywhere, in your newspaper, on restaurant walls, on the shelves at stores, and at the cinema or live theater.

“If you believed that Black men were Sambos, childlike buffoons, for example, then why would they be allowed to vote?” Pilgrim says. “Why would they be allowed to hold office, serve on a jury, or attend public schools with whites? If Black men were brutes who were a threat to white women, why would they be allowed to share beaches, public-school classes or taxicabs? If Black women were Mammies whose best roles in life were serving white families, why would they be allowed in other occupations when the society needed them for that? So the caricatures, and the stereotypes which accompanied them, became rationalizations for keeping Blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. Perpetuating these caricatures was a way to make sure you didn’t have to compete against Black people economically. In short, it was a way of sustaining white supremacy.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Republicans in Congress pushed for what became known as Radical Reconstruction in the 11 Southern states that had seceded from the Union. Following Emancipation, these states had passed “Black Codes” restricting the freedom of former slaves to move through public places, conduct business, and own land and guns. New “vagrancy” laws allowed police to arrest freed people for the smallest of arbitrary infractions and then force them to do free labor under the “convict-lease system,” the forerunner to the current penal system.

“Poor Blacks were rounded up and placed in prisons so that they could be worked for free,” Pilgrim says. “Some of them were locked up in these places for 20 or 30 years. But unless you put that history in a movie, most Americans won’t know it occurred.”

Other former slaves—who never got paid for their pre-war labor—became indebted sharecroppers at the plantations that had formerly enslaved them. The federal government’s Freedmen’s Bureau, which often negotiated these sharecropping contracts, also attempted to round up so-called Black “vagrants” and put them to work, either through the prison system or through sharecropping. Many white people in the South irrationally feared that, without labor to keep them busy, Black people would “regress” into dangerous savages, running rampant in the streets, overcome by lust for sex and blood.

Gaining more power in Congress in 1867, Radical Republicans put former Confederate states under the control of the U.S. Army. They imposed punishments on former Confederate leaders—even removing most Southern representation from Congress—protected the rights of newly freed Black men, and sought to squelch resistance from the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups. Passing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the Republicans granted Black men citizenship and the rights to vote and hold political office under the Constitution. The Reconstruction state legislatures, made up of Blacks and whites, created the earliest public school systems in the South and many charities. U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, who was in office 1869-1877, promoted Radical Reconstruction and aggressively employed the military to protect African Americans in the South.

But when less-radical Republican Rutherford B. Hayes took office in 1877, in the name of reuniting the country, he abandoned Reconstruction, pardoning Confederate leaders and pulling the U.S. Army out of the Southern states—which promptly passed a series of anti-Black laws, like poll taxes, that became known as “Jim Crow” laws. In the 1890s, Southern states, under Democrat control once again, passed new constitutions that made it even more difficult for Black men to vote.

“If ever you had a Hall of Shame, Rutherford B. Hayes would be in it,” Pilgrim says. “But the truth of the matter is if you look at the period right after the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction, there were a lot of whites who were tired of the whole anti-slavery piece. Quite frankly, a lot of the abolitionists would be racists by today’s standards. They also thought Blacks were inferior intellectually and morally. So I think the end of Reconstruction wasn’t just because of Rutherford B. Hayes. The North was tired of dealing with it. I think many white people in North recognized that they, too, had benefited from slavery. The nation, as a whole, turned its back on Black people.”

“After Reconstruction ended in 1877, the next two decades were a downward spiral,” he continues. “You had all the Southern states rewriting their constitutions to return to segregation. You had the creation of a number white vigilante and racist groups. Lynchings became a tool to keep Blacks in line. A historian named Rayford Logan called the time between 1877 and 1901 ‘the nadir of American race relations.’ It was absolutely the worst for Black people, because it was almost as if their entire nation hated them.”

The second Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1890 was the first federal law that legitimized segregation, allowing states to build separate but equitable educational facilities for Blacks and whites, which led to the establishment of what are now known as historically Black colleges. Some states even passed local laws banning whites and Blacks from being educated together. That same year, the state of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, which required railroad companies to provide different train cars for Blacks and whites.

In 1892, an activist group made up of African American, white and Creole New Orleans residents came together with the East Louisiana Railroad, which didn’t want to purchase more cars. They asked a free-born mixed-race man, Homer Adolph Plessy, who was seven-eighths European and one-eighth African descent, to buy a “whites only” ticket and had him arrested as soon as he sat down in the car. In his court case, Plessy’s defendants argued that the law violated his rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, which abolished slavery and offered African Americans citizenship and equal protection of the law. State judge John Howard Ferguson struck down that argument. The case went to the nation’s all-white Supreme Court in 1896, which upheld the legality of “separate but equal” services, public facilities, housing, health care, education, jobs, and transit.

The “separate but equal” doctrine “was a smirk-in-your-face lie,” Pilgrim writes in Understanding Jim Crow. “In most instances, the Black facilities were grossly inferior—generally older, less well-kept. In other cases, there were no Black facilities—no colored public restroom, no public beach, no place to sit or eat. [The Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling] gave Jim Crow states a legal way to ignore their constitutional obligations to their Black citizens.”

In his June 2014 Atlantic cover article, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out how, in the South, former slaves and their families were often trapped in a system of debt peonage to the cotton planters, who served as the landlords, employers and merchants. Their white employers took most of the money for their work, saddling them with debt and taxes, and usually ended up reclaiming their land and other property, too. In a state like Mississippi, where a majority of the population was poor and Black, their tax money went to fund white schools and libraries that African Americans were not allowed to use. And there was no recourse since they were regularly denied the right to vote.

In addition to living under this anti-Black economic system and anti-Black laws, African Americans were deluged by messages from white Christian pastors, phrenologists, eugenicists, Darwinists and politicians, who all preached that Black people belonged to a lower race than white people. In particular, white people believed that if African Americans and whites had sexual relationships, it would create an “impure” race that would lead to the downfall of America. Jim Crow social etiquette demanded that Blacks not shake hands with whites; eat, sit, or socialize with whites; or publicly show affection toward other Black people.

Jim Crow started to break down, very slowly, during World War II. Desperate for workers, shipbuilders in the San Francisco Bay Area began to employ African Americans in 1943, albeit at a much lower pay rate than their white counterparts. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a long-time civil-rights activist, pushed for the U.S. military to remove its restrictions on how African Americans could serve—most were limited to lowly labor like driving delivery trucks and serving in mess halls. As American forces were ravaged overseas, in 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower agreed to allow Black soldiers to fight in combat for the United States, a first step toward desegregating the military. Segregated Black units were among the troops sent to Normandy Beach on D-Day on June 6, 1944. After the war, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the military to integrate. In 1954, a lawsuit in Topeka, Kansas, that became known as Brown vs. Board of Education exposed the drastic inequities between Black and white schools, prompting the Supreme Court to overturn “separate but equal” segregation.

While slow progress toward racial integration was being made in the 1940s and 1950s, city and state governments around the country were redlining districts to divide cities up into race-based neighborhoods, as Coates explains in “The Case for Reparations.” Irrational fear of an imagined Black menace, the Black brute, had a real affect on home prices in neighborhoods, while predatory lending practices kept Black people impoverished, constantly on the brink of losing their homes.

The idea of the Black rapist stalking and threatening to defile white women was alive and well. In 1955, Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was visiting Mississippi and may have called a white female store clerk “baby.” For that, her husband and brother dragged the kid out of his uncle’s house, attacking and pummeling him until they crushed his head. Then they dumped his limp body into a river. When the men were tried, the all-white jury found them innocent. This case—and the lack of justice for this murdered boy—became a defining moment the new Civil Rights movement rallied around.

“Today, I would say the dominant image of young Black men is probably a son of a brute, expressed as a hip-hop ‘gangsta,’ with sagging pants and an Uzi,” Pilgrim tells me. “The Jezebel has resurfaced today as a ‘hoochie mama’ or ‘ghetto whore.’ The caricatures don’t really die; they morph. The ‘thug’ is an updated version of the coon. You can go back and look at those coon songs from the 1890s, the depiction is not that different from what you see today.”

The “hoochie mama” Jezebel caricature is still being wrestled with in discussions about respectability politics. On one hand, in hip-hop music videos, many male artists surround themselves with beautiful, scantily clad young women, who are only there to serve as objectified props. Female pop, hip-hop, and R&B stars, however, often wear skimpy costumes and present themselves as powerful seductresses. The difference being that in the latter case, the woman is in control of her image and talking about her own desires—breaking free of the notion that Black women’s sexuality is something that is dangerous and must be policed.

“Maybe three weeks ago, I was watching an infomercial selling Motown CDs,” Pilgrim tells me. “Middle-class and upper-class African Americans were in the audience, and these iconic musicians were on the stage. This is going to sound really corny, but just for a second, I thought to myself, ‘Why not just forget about all this stuff and just dance?’ And I chided myself about that a little bit, because I have heard that so much.”

“Giving presentations on the road, I often will have someone say to me, ‘If you didn’t travel this country talking about race, racism would go away,’” he continues. “That doesn’t even make stupid sense. The reality is we talk about race all the time. We talk about it in our restrooms, in our living rooms, at work. We talk about it in places where our ideas are not challenged. If I didn’t build a museum, we wouldn’t stop talking about race. What I hoped by building this was that we could talk about it, even the more painful things, in ways that are intelligent and sometimes difficult. But that is what a mature nation does. Race-based struggles and conflicts still occur in our country. Race still matters in the U.S., in ways that serve to limit people, that serve to shape and, forgive the pun, color interactions between people.”

As foreign as these Jim Crow artifacts may look to us now, we’re still living in a country where white people irrationally fear a Black menace will kill them, which has led to the murders of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; and countless others. It’s still a nation where African American children are viewed as wild, unruly animals destined for a life of crime—just look at the treatment of the teenage girl in Columbia, South Carolina; Dajerria Becton in McKinney, Texas; Tamir Rice and his sister in Cleveland, Ohio. In a recent survey by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, more than half of African American men and women ages 18 to 34 said they or someone they knew had been harassed or brutalized by the police.

“One of the more powerful sections of the museum is a section on objects that have been made in the last 10 years,” Pilgrim says. “Because our name implies we’re only about another era, some people are surprised when they see two dozen objects on President Obama, where he’s portrayed as a monkey, a Tom, a coon, or a Sambo. If you don’t know history, then you don’t know what those things are. But if you understand history, you see that even though the United States has made a tremendous amount of progress, the old stereotypes and some of the old patterns of relations between different groups still exist. That’s why we should look at it, study it, talk about it. It’s a history that, in some ways, has not ended.”

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 Photos via Understanding Jim Crow


Lisa Hix, an associate editor at, has worked for Yahoo!, Flavorpill, KQED online and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her work also appeared at Bitch, Jezebel, Bust and Glamour. Find her on Twitter at @lisahix.