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Racist Images and Messages in Jim Crow Era

Racist images in the Jim Crow era were used as propaganda to send messages that demeaned African Americans and legitimized violence against them. A visit to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan—home to the largest collection of racist memorabilia in the country—reveals racist memorabilia and messages in all forms, from kitchen utensils to postcards featuring images of public whippings. Among the museum’s collection is a row of caricatures—the Pickaninny, the Tom, the coon, the tragic mulatto, the Jezebel, the savage.

“All groups, all racial and ethnic groups in this country have been caricatured. None of them has been caricatured as often and in so many ways as have Africans and their American descendants,”  says David Pilgrim,  founder of the Jim Crow Museum.

He continues, “You could take any piece that you see in here, and they do two things. The first thing is they reflect existing attitudes toward black people, but the other thing, and maybe more important is, they shaped future attitudes toward black people.”

The images and stereotypes used to represent African-Americans changed with the times. As historian David Levering Lewis explains, white America’s representations of African-Americans were quite different before and after the Civil War.

“The African American in antebellum times was, as the stereotype held, reliable, faithful, hardworking, malleable. Indeed, one entrusted one’s children, one’s property to such people. Now, of a sudden, the African American becomes demonized, a threat, a lascivious beast roaming the countryside of the South, people loosed by the end of slavery and now upon us like locusts,” says Levering Lewis. “Well, this was an absurdity.”

Learn more in Making a Way Out of No Way, episode four of the six-part series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Episode four premieres on PBS on Tuesday, November, 12, 2013, 8-9 pm ET.  Check local listings on the broadcast schedule.

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The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross is a film by Kunhardt McGee Productions, THIRTEEN Productions LLC, Inkwell Films, in assocation with Ark Media.