Jim Crowing: A Store That Keeps the Memory of Hatred Alive

Chances are you've never heard of Picaninny Freeze or Coon Chicken Inn, the pride of Salt Lake City, Utah; or seen a sign that says "Public Swimming Pool, White Only." But at Martha's Crib in south suburban Matteson, near Chicago, you can not only see these signs, but, as has become a national trend among African Americans, you can buy one and hang it in your home. Tucked away in a corner of the Lincoln Mall, Martha's Crib doesn't offer your normal shopping-center fare. Owner Marchel'le Renise Barber specializes in country crafts and items that promote positive African-American role models, but the store's fastest-growing line of merchandise is much more controversial. The store is known throughout Chicago for carrying "Black Memorabilia," a euphemism for racist materials from America's past -- everything from advertisements to Jim Crow signs -- which have found new life as collectibles. And while some customers find the items offensive, most of the store's multicultural clientele keep coming back for the rare items."It's not just collectors anymore," says Barber. "Sometimes someone will just see something that they want, that touches them. They'll see the New Orleans Minstrels and they won't know why, but they'll have to have it." Barber added the memorabilia to her already thriving craft store during February, Black History Month. And it has proved to be such a popular line that Barber plans to expand it when the store takes over a larger mall space November 1. "I didn't plan on having a store with this kind of stuff in it," says Barber, who started her shop to sell crafts geared toward African Americans. "I wasn't sure how people would react, but I thought I'm just going to go for it."But for many people, the question is why anyone would want to have these items in their homes. Most of the signs and pictures are blatantly racist. The ad for Picaninny Freeze shows a black child eating a large slice of watermelon. The Sambo dartboard awards 500 points to the lucky person who can nail Sambo's hat. An ad for Allcock's Porous Plasters says that "It will not make black white, but they will kill local pains," while Darkie Toothpaste tells us that it "gets teeth the whitest." Then there are the Jim Crow signs: "We Serve Colored: Take Out Only," and several equally shocking variations. A 1942 posting by the Lone Star Restaurant Association in Dallas, proclaims "NO: Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans." The signs hang near Aunt Jemima, who can be purchased in every form possible, from a toaster cover and cookie jar to wall lamp and soap dispenser.Some of the customers view these items as things best left in the past, but Barber sees them as symbols of the African-American experience. "There's two kinds of people that come in," she says: "The people who saw this stuff and remember it and the people who think we're making it up ourselves. They really believe we make things up. I try to explain that this was the way they thought of us. African Americans today need to see what African Americans of the past had to endure."Barber stresses that the items aren't just on display for shock value; she hopes to educate customers about the history of these objects. To that end, she offers tours to children from local grade schools. "They can actually learn something," she says. "It's interesting to teach kids words like 'stereotype' and 'picaninny.' The kids say, 'What's that? I never heard of that.'" The new location will include a larger scale learning center stocked with books and videos about black heritage. Until then, people can peruse signs posted around the store that explain the historical significance of some items.Many times black people were pictured with exaggerated lips, bulging eyes and big grins to give the idea that they enjoyed their lot in life. And they were seen to speak in broken dialects to show them in an inferior light and therefore justify inferior treatment. "Look at the Cream of Wheat man," Barber says. "They show him in a subservient position. And both of his hands are on his legs. Both hands had to be visible -- especially in pictures that showed a black man with a child -- because they wanted to portray the black man as a predator."Another popular figure is the bust of a black man that also acts as a bank. "This is the jolly nigger bank," Barber explains. "You put a coin in his hand, push the level and it puts the coin in his mouth as his eyes roll back and his ears wiggle. They sell it today and call it the jolly man bank or the black man bank, but people who remember know it was called the jolly nigger bank. Back in the day this is what they would think of you." Martha's Crib also sells the black jockey, one of the most familiar racist figures. "Some people came in here and told me that in the South they would knock these over when they saw them," Barber says. "In slave times these used to be on porches on the underground railroad. They would be holding a light; if the light was on and you were a slave on the run, you knew it was safe. If it was out, you had to hide out in the woods. Some people will see it and they'll freak. But they don't know their history." But many of the older customers were alive when these items were acceptable, Barber says. Before carrying the line of Jim Crow signs that she had produced specifically for her store, she asked those patrons for their blessing."Anybody who has really seen the signs, they want them," she says. "They want their kids and grandkids to see what they had to see when they were growing up." And while Barber has originals in her home, she only carries reproductions in the store. "I hang them up in my house and I love to see the telephone man and the electrician come in and stare," she says. "But I can't sell originals. It would be like selling somebody. I'd think, 'Maybe fifty years ago some black people saw this thing and it hurt them.'" But even the reproductions signs have raised some hackles. "Sometimes black people ask me, 'Why are you selling this stuff that's so ugly and is making fun of me?'" Barber says. "It's part of our history. We can't hide from it." With white customers, the reaction has been somewhat different. "It's, 'Why do you people have to remember these kinds of things?' What other race of people is expected to forget their past?" she says. "The Jewish people try to remember their Holocaust. Well this is our holocaust. A holocaust of spirit, of life and of liberty. I want to say to my ancestors, 'How is it that you made it?' We should not feel bad. It makes me feel good to know I came from people who came from people who had to look at this stuff every day-and they survived."

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