Welcome to the Misadventures of Widowhood blog!

In January of 2012 my soul mate of 42 years passed away after nearly 12 years of living with severe disabilities due to a stroke. I survived the first year after Don’s death doing what most widows do---trying to make sense of my world turned upside down. The pain and heartache of loss, my dark humor, my sweetest memories and, yes, even my pity parties are well documented in this blog.

Now that I’m a "seasoned widow" the focus of my writing has changed. I’m still a widow looking through that lens but I’m also a woman searching for contentment, friends and a voice in my restless world. Some people say I have a quirky sense of humor that shows up from time to time in this blog. Others say I make some keen observations about life and growing older. I say I just write about whatever passes through my days---the good, bad and the ugly. Comments welcome and encouraged. Let's get a dialogue going! Jean

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Jim Crow Museum and Changing Times



Four years ago a black professor at Michigan’s Ferris State University put together The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia that now contains over 9,000 objects created between the 1870s and the 1960s (with a smattering of Obama hate objects thrown in). The term “Jim Crow” can be defined as a system of laws and customs that only applied to black people to keep society segregated after slavery ended. The culture of Jim Crow was often supported by violence, and the production of demeaning objects, literature and images of the black community was prolific. This museum is attempting to use those “objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.” The most disgusting object I saw on a recent visit was an 1874 jigsaw puzzle named ‘Chopped Up Niggers’ but others in my Red Hat Society chapter thought a baby bib from the Civil Rights Movement got their vote for the most disgusting object. Its embroidery read, “The only good nigger is a dead nigger.” 

Another sign that caught my attention read, ‘Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here.” My dad used to tell us about a similar sign that was posted at each end of the town where he grew up in Southern Illinois. That sign read, “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on Your Black Ass” and for years I thought it was unique to that particular town. It wasn’t. There’s evidence that ‘sunset signs’ were posted in 150 towns, in 31 states during the Jim Crow era and they meant that if you were black and caught outside after dark you could expect to be met with violence. When my dad was a nine-ten year old boy he saw some of that after dark violence when he hid in the woods and watched the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross and hang a man of color.

In the months before my dad died we talked a lot about racism. It was 1999 and Tiger Woods had just won the PGA Championship that year. The ‘good old white boy club’ was finally integrated and Tiger's mark in history as the youngest man and first black man to win the Masters was sealed. Dad, a life-long golfer, was elated and proud to see Tiger’s success---that society could make so much progress in race relations in Dad's lifetime. I bought every magazine with articles about Tiger in them and read them to dad that summer. And Dad would tell me about his experiences with things like: having grown black men step off the sidewalk to let little white boys pass by, having the Klan raid and ransack houses in his Italian neighborhood, and having a sign at the coal mine where my grandfather worked that listed the pay scale by race and color---Italians were paid more than the Irish and the Irish more than the blacks with whites at the top and "black Italians" (Sicilians) at the bottom. One time Dad’s family went to pay their respects when a shopkeeper died and they were shocked to see him laid out in a KKK robe. According to Dad, it was the only time they revealed themselves. We talked about the impact it made on pushing lawmakers when the nightly news showed dogs and fire hoses being used on African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. We talked about how the lily white neighborhood where I grew up in the north was red-lined on a map to prevent people of color from getting mortgages within the red-lines.

My Red Hat chapter spent two-and-half hours at the Jim Crow museum looking at everything from sheet music, Black Sambo and Aunt Jemima figurines, postcards of Klan hangings and beatings, ash trays, black-faced fishing lures, books, records, children’s games to KKK memorabilia and a full-size hanging tree. The professor/curator said if he had his way he wouldn’t have any KKK memorabilia in the museum because he doesn’t want people to get the idea that racism was only practiced by organized groups like the KKK when it was pervasive in the general population during Jim Crow days. One thing I found interesting in the KKK display, though, was the “uniform” of the WKKK---the Women’s Ku Klux Klan. 1) I didn’t know women had their own group and handbook, and 2) their outfits didn’t include a hood as if the Klan didn’t think women were important enough to hide their identity. The curator of this museum is planning and collecting for another museum of hate memorabilia against women as they worked for nearly 100 years to get the right to vote. I hope he gets it finished while I’m still around to see it.

It was an interesting outing with eleven of my Red Hat sisters. It was also noteworthy that the one lady in our group who I had pegged as a racist (based on the e-mails from conspiracy and hate sites she forwards about Obama and “politically correctness”) said several times in the museum that she couldn’t see why certain objects would offend anyone. No one answered her and at one point she said, “I need to keep my mouth shut because I always get myself in trouble with this topic.” Sometimes it's hard for me to rationalize the differences between her online personality with the funny, likeable and bubbly impression she makes in person. She’s got a blind spot which I’m guessing is true of most people who don’t understand that perpetuating negative stereotypes IS racist, who don’t understand that it takes MORE than changing laws to lift the legacy of oppression that still influences the lives of many African Americans. Changing hearts and minds---that will take another generation if not two. Change is messy. Change doesn't move in a straight line. And while true equality is still just an altruistic goal, one day race will no longer matter. Love always wins out over hate in the broad vista views of the human race. ©



 Video about the Jim Crow Museum

26 comments:

  1. I once met a man who had witnessed a KKK hanging and cross burning when he was a kid. He said he recognized his grandfather's boots under one of the white robes. When I was in my early twenties, the KKK was still active here. I don't believe it is anymore. When we lived in MD, I was shocked when I drove up to the SuperFresh one morning, and Klan members and Skin Heads were standing on each corner of the intersection, and spouting hate speech and carrying their signs. I believe that love wins out in the end, too, and I agree that improvement takes time and does not go in a straight line. I also believe that once real change begins, it cannot be stopped, perhaps quelled for awhile, but not stopped.

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    1. I love what you said about change, once it begins, cannot be stopped. That is so true. Unfortunately, hate groups including the KKK are still around and probably where you live---892 of them according to the Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks all hate groups. You can check out their map here: https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map You can sort by state, too, and if you click on any of the group symbols a screen will open up to tell you about that particular group. We have 4 Neo-Nazi, 5 anti-Muslim and 1 KKK here in Michigan. Very sad and scary that people have so much hate in their hearts.

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    2. Color me naive. I knew the Klan had been active here, but I didn't know they still had a significant presence. I assumed they were waning. Apparently we have six KKK groups and a plethora of other hate groups in our state. The article I found cited "anger over gay rights, racial changes in the population, and a black president" as the reasons for a revival of the KKK here (and I'm assuming this is true around the country). Those seem to be the topics that garner the most attention at KKK rallies. When things begin to change, people who feel their position is being usurped become more activated than ever. Not shocking but very disappointing.

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    3. Electing a black president did anger a lot of people who just assumed their "superiority" would never be challenged, in my opinion. It brought their prejudices to the surface and out in the open. I know a few people who fit in that category. They post nasty stuff on Facebook and have a long history of telling racist jokes at weddings and parties.

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  2. Thank you for a most informative post, including the video. I personally wouldn't have signed on for the tour - found it upsetting just to watch the video.

    You are more optimistic than I am in thinking racism will end. The tenet of racism - differentiation - is too pervasive. I can visualise a situation where the whites are outnumbered by the non-whites, become less educated and despised, and the situation is reversed.

    I admire the pioneers - people like your dad (and mine) who, despite being brought up in an era where colour-prejudice was prevalent, did *not* discriminate on the basis of color. Sigh, why can't people treat others as they themselves would want to be treated? But then I realise I am not fault-free (who is?) - have my own prejudices. ~Libby

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    1. I admire my dad, too, for many reasons including how he was able not to be influenced by the era he was raised in regarding prejudice attitudes. He was probably a classic example of what they call "White Guilt", felt we got a lot of advantages in life simply because of our color.

      You're right, none of us are fault-free but I feel we are obligated to be honest with ourselves and work on our faults and attitudes. It's so important for our generation not to pass those negative traits down to the next generation, especially since they will be living in a different world where such things will not be tolerated.

      It didn't really bother me to go to this museum because I'd seen a lot of this kind of thing in antique stores over the years, even bought and sold a few pieces. I probably still have some sheet music and books that I may donate to the musuem. They have set up some traveling exhibits and said no donation will ever be sold. They will be displayed, archived and/or shared with other museums.

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    2. P.S. I'm glad you took the time to watch the video. It's does such a good job of showing what's in the musuem and why those objects are there as well explain the Jim Crow era and its influence still today. Wonderfully done!

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  3. This post made me feel stupid. Here I am, 71 years old and learning about how so many people were treated. For most of my life, I lived in the northern part of America. I thought Aunt Jemima was a representative for pancake mix and syrup, just as Betty Crocker was a representative for cake mixes and cook books. I never thought of it as a slur. My ex-MIL had a 'Mammy' doll toaster cover and I never took it as anything but cute.
    I never witnessed or noticed any signs for usage by different persons.
    I was aware of a problem with the schools in the news, the race riots, and the like. I didn't understand any of it. I know ignorance is no excuse, but I was busy trying to live my life as best I could and these things didn't affect me.
    The stuff in your post made me cry, to think that some of my friends had been treated badly - they never mentioned it to me. How sad.

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    1. In the late '50s my family took a trip down south and we saw the signs for separate drinking fountains and bathrooms for blacks and whites. That was my first exposure to racism based on color. (Prejudice based on religion I have firsthand experience with.) It was a shock---those signs---because, like you, it wasn't something I thought about in my all white neighborhood. We can't know what we don't know. I'm glad this post made an impression on you. I've wanted to write about this issue for a long time and the museum visit was the catalysis to finally doing it.

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  4. Wow, I knew it bad for the blacks in the past but I didn't know it was that bad. I have some very close friends that are black and they are batter then some whites that I know. That part about President Obama was atrocious. I doubt that racism will ever end. There will always be people hating other people. As an Italian I've experienced some negative things in my life. When I got teaching job was I so excited of getting that teaching job. That afternoon I went in to town to buy some thing that I needed to bring to class the next day. As I was walking down the street, this man that was high in the town, past me and said to me, I understand that you got a job teaching. I smiled and said yes, I excited. As he went to go he said to me, you wops all stand together, don't they. The comment was because the principal of my school was Italian and there were four other teachers already at the school. That made me angry but I knew where it was coming from. Things never change.
    Thanks for wring this blog my friend. See ya

    Cruisin Paul

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    1. Thank you for reading it and commenting. I think shared memories and feelings can only lead to better a understanding how far we've come and how far we have yet to go in race relations.

      I'm not surprised at story about your teaching job. My dads' Italian family was large and full of immigrants who experienced push-back. No one thinks anything about the Italian or Irish anymore and they experienced the same prejudices that the Muslims are now. It ticks me off when people forget we are a country of immigrants.

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  5. There is a "sunset" community near where I live in Arkansas. I moved to the state in 1984 and it's only been in the last 10 years that people of color have moved into the town. I grew up in central Illinois in the 60s and I remember when the town built a swimming pool at a "sportsman's club". It was a membership only pool and the man who was selling it to my parents said "You don't want your kids in the same pool as the niggers do you?" That has stuck with me all those years, and as I think about it, there were only whites there. Sad times that keep repeating themselves.

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    1. One time Sammy Davis Jr. swam in a motel swimming pool and the management drained the pool afterward because, he said, the whites "wouldn't use it after a nigger did." There were several "pool for whites only" signs in the musuem.

      Someone in our group told about a "sunset" community that still existed up north in my state as recently as 10 years ago when she was in charge of planning an event at a resort. None of the black teachers would sign up to go and when asked why, they explained that the area was a known "sunset" area.

      Like I said/implied in my essay, just changing the laws doesn't change the hearts and minds of people. It's going to take more time for blacks and whites to go to school together, work and live next to one another before hearts and minds are fully engaged.

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  6. A very interesting post. I grew up in a very small Texas town. Our little town was near a "sunset" town and I heard people talk about it. I can honestly say I did not personally meet a black person until after I was married. Growing up my world was very white. Thinking back about my parents I don't remember them being prejudiced against people of color. As an adult we had a neighbor who was very prejudiced but come Sunday morning she was among the most pious in her church. That drove me nuts then and still makes me angry today.

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    1. Isn't that a dichotomy---if that's the right term for pious church going racists! I know a few people like that.

      I guess it shouldn't surprise us, though, because the second incarnation of the Klan was organized after Reconstruction by a Protestant Christian minister and religion was a centerpiece of their platform.

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  7. It seems we have "racism" for every group that enters the USA. Why do humans look down on other humans? Native Americans, Africans, Germans, Polish, Italians, Women, Hispanic, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Russian, now Muslims and Serbians and who knows who will be next? It's sad and heart breaking. Yet it continues. Thanks for blogging.

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    1. A very good question you ask. Fear maybe? People don't like change?

      How is it in Hawaii where you live? I always assumed the melting pot there was pretty well mixed without many tensions. Though your "mix" is different than where I live.

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  8. I read this post with the same sick feeling I get in my stomach I always do when I see images and hear stories of the blatant racism that was commonplace in the past -- and still evident today, if somewhat more hidden. All the "isms" really, as you point out -- with the discrimination against women, other minorities, those who have physical and mental challenges, and more and more of note to me -- ageism.

    My dad grew up on a farm in very rural southern Indiana. He told of a time he was in a "saloon" and a black man came in. The bartender served him a shot, but when he put the glass on the bar, the bartender picked it up and threw it against the wall. The man turned and walked out in a hurry. My dad said it was troubling to see. It makes my heart hurt especially the whispers I heard at some point that made me think maybe, not sure, but maybe, my grandfather was in the KKK. It seems he was "pressured" to join by others in the community, but still....Southern Indiana in those days (probably 1920-1930) was a hotbed of KKK activity.

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    1. Indiana is still a hot bed judging by the 16 hate groups listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center hate groups map. If your grandfather was in the KKK someone in your family did a good job of not teaching hate to other generations.

      Breaking a glass after a black person drank out it wasn't uncommon. We really have come along way since our parents' generation. That we can be proud of and use that to inspire us to do whatever we can to fight against racism---even if all we do is not laugh at racist jokes or pass along racist emails.

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  9. How wonderful to have a museum locally that looks our racist history in the face instead of the "color-blind racism" stance of averting our eyes and pretending it all never happened. There's a very interesting book by Kathy Blee called Women of the Klan that focuses on the KKK and it's women's auxiliary in Indiana in the 1920s. If I remember correctly (it's been a while since I read it), the Klan's slogan at the time was "110% American," promulgating the idea that only whites of certain northern European ancestry could be truly American. -Jean

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    1. Amazon.com still has that book, I just looked at it and the reviews. I can't believe it never dawned on me that women were also in the Klan. Auxiliaries are attached to so many other groups.

      This museum has put together traveling exhibits that they loan out to other universities and some very famous people have been through this one. If I had my way, everyone should have to see it and the video I've linked. I can't believe so many people who I've mentioned the museum to who don't have a clue what Jim Crow was. Just they don't teach it in schools anymore.

      Thanks for the book title.

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  10. Thank you for this post. I did not know of this museum.
    I grew up in NYC. My neighborhood was mostly white. There were neighborhoods of different ethnic groups..the Italian neighborhood...the Irish area and the black neighborhood. We all went to school together (my HS was close to 50%/white 50%/black with all the ethnicities blended in there. But it wasn't until recently that we really understood anything more than people wanted to live with their own kind (and there is still a lot of truth in that)...what was not clearly understood until recently was the discrimination in housing that was underlying the neighborhoods. How many people of other races, religions or ethnicities tried to get an apartment in a neighborhood but we're quietly rejected? That was the unspoken truth that we, as kids, didn't realize.

    And for the commenters who wonder why we can't be considerate to each other (and with apologies to the South Pacific song. You've Got to Be Taught to Hate) human nature is not really considerate (remember Lord of the Flies) We do need to be taught to be kind and considerate.
    If you think I am not correct, consider all the politicians who get caught in schemes involving greed and deceit. It's an example of a position of power that could work for the good of mankind and so many of them can't seem to stay on the right path. Power underlies so much and that includes the need to feel superior to other people. We are in a continual battle between the forces of good and evil. I am an optimistic person but we do have to be vigilant (sorry for being crude but we can't let the f***ers win).
    Regards
    Leze

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    1. Well said, Leze! People/kids are taught prejudices and hate just like on the other side of the coin when we teach children to have empathy and compassion. Dehumanizing people is always part of hating other groups, not seeing them as people. I think that was why Mr. Khan, the Muslim Gold Star father touched to many people, because he humanized a Muslim-American in a way not done before.

      I also love what you said about being vigilant and not letting the fu*kers win. I'm optimistic that good will overcome the evil, too, but it isn't something we can be complacent about, we each need to do our part.

      One of the purposes of the museum is to get people to talk about racism and I am pleased that this blog entry is causing my frequent commenters to share our own experiences growing up. (Wish others would join in as well.)

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  11. My father-in-law was born in Texas, and brought his racism to New York, and Ohio. As a child, my late husband heard him say "I like n****. You can train 'em to do most anything". Well, I guess so. His mother and father hired a black nanny, who lived with them, even though she had her own children. She saw them only on her precious day off. She loved Ev and raised him like her own son, though he remembered bossing her around. He was quite ashamed of that later, because he loved her and felt she was more 'Mom' than his own mother. Later, as an adult, he visited her to take her out, and she insisted in sitting in the back seat of his car. I think that's when it hit him, that their love wasn't overcoming racism's imprint.

    I hope I'm mistaken, but as long as there are insecure people, there will be some base need to feel 'better than' some scapegoat. I catch that 'one-up', one-down' mentality in me, and when I do I try to replace it with non-judgment and curiosity. But what of the times I don't catch it? I pray for the day, when there's no need to correct ourselves, but in the meantime, I am so grateful for the people like this professor. And you, for speaking out.

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    1. What an interesting story about your husband and the nanny. It reminded of a story I heard at the museum about a black guy who managed to make a lot of money in the entertainment business back in the '30. He wanted to buy a nice car but the only way he could drive it around and not get hassled was to get a chauffeur's hat and pretend it as a boss's car.

      Regretting your paragraph, I think we all have places were we judge and scapegoat BUT I also think most of us today do try to check that mentality and change it within ourselves because we know it's wrong...and that IS progress. If every generation sheds some of our racism we'll get there someday where we won't need laws that force fairness and respect.

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    2. Oh! What a story - needing to pretend he was the chauffeur and not the owner. Those were NOT the good ol' days. One thing about globalism and now the Olympics - every skin color's and orientation represented and celebrated.

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