This quote brought to the world by H. Ross Perot demanded attention throughout the Jim Crow Forum on Wednesday evening: “The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river.” Dr. David Pilgrim, an applied sociologist, public speaker, leading expert on race relations and visionary for the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, used Perot’s metaphor to describe his work. However, Pilgrim also noted that Perot, a two time presidential candidate and billionaire, was for some, a symbol of patriotism and for others, a political figure that pushed racist stereotypes in his speeches. Through creating the Jim Crow Museum and encouraging dialogue in his classes, Pilgrim is dedicated to showing objects of intolerance in an effort to build tolerance.
Although Pilgrim explained that many of his friends do not always agree with his style of activism, he made it very clear that when it comes to encouraging conversations on race relations in America, he is deep in the river. Avery Lowe (’19) is now the Interpretive Programs Coordinator at the Holland Museum. Last year, while still a student at Hope, Lowe was asked by the director of the Joint Archives of Holland to do research recording the “accounts of black face as well as anything else that would be considered racist, disrespectful, or insensitive.” Lowe went onto to say that she was horrified by the frequency of the images throughout Hope’s history. Along with many institutions of higher education, Hope is looking to fully encounter ugly parts of the past and find ways to learn more actively from it on campus.
Following Lowe’s research, the Director of Hope’s Van Wylen Library, Kelly Gordon Jacobsma said, “When the Hope Library and Archives discovered racist imagery in our own yearbooks, we decided to use it as a teachable moment.” Partnering with Sonja Trent-Brown, Chief Officer for Diversity and Inclusion, and Vanessa Greene, Associate Dean of Students and Director for Diversity and Inclusion, the vision for an inviting space to engage in discussion over these images truly came to light.
Following Dr. Pilgrim’s lecture, the panel was filled with notable perspectives including Dr. Fred Johnson from History; Dr. Heidi Kraus from Art & Art History and Dr. Trent-Brown from Psychology and the President’s Office. Together, they answered questions brought by audience members. One question in particular, posed by Michael Pineda, pointedly asked what Hope College can and should be doing to more effectively bring these hard conversations about race to campus. Johnson stepped in by explaining that as a professor of history he is also working to collect racist memorabilia to help students talk about racism in a way that is “rooted in where we are right now.” Following, Kraus said “we have an obligation to listen, not always talk” but in showing these racist objects, we can create more spaces for all students. Together, the panelists brought ideas together all emphasizing that one of the most vital facets of these conversations is that they must be safe for all students.
Hope is not alone in pursuing this kind of dialogue, the Holland Museum is hosting “THEM: Images of Separation”, a traveling exhibit from the Jim Crow Museum from November 15 to February 22. Alongside the exhibit, the museum is hosting several events on antisemitism, immigration and stereotyping and an event celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s global impact on his honorary day, which falls on January 20th of 2020. For more information on these specific events, go to https://hollandmuseum.org/exhibition/them-images-of-separation/. As Hope College and the surrounding community shift to make spaces for these events and conversations, all are being called to find a place to stand in the river of activism.