'Ghosts of Segregation' exhibit explores America's past at Charles Allis Art Museum
A new art exhibition in Milwaukee, called “Ghosts of Segregation,” features photos of physical remnants of the Jim Crow era. The pictures depict places like businesses that had separate entrances for Black people, and areas where people of color were murdered.
At the Charles Allis Art Museum, the historic mansion is now a space where guests can learn about segregation in America. The exhibition showcases Richard Frishman’s photography.
Dozens of images decorate the mansion’s walls, each accompanied by a description that provides historical information. The largest photo in the great hall shows the exterior of an ice cream shop in Pascagoula, Mississppi, taken in 2018. Two people of color are placing an order at the front of the building.
Senior Curator Phoenix Brown described the image.
"We see off to the right there is a window, and there's also a figure inside of this window," Brown said. "This window used to be where people of color would have to order for their meals on the side of the building. They weren't allowed to order from the front, and then they had to wait until the white patrons were finished ordering before their order was fulfilled."
Although the photos shy away from graphic content, Brown said viewing the exhibition can be an intense experience. For example, when people see and read about Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Louisiana.
In 2019, it was the third predominantly Black church burned within two weeks in acts of hate by the same arsonist.
The intense themes are why areas like the great hall and sitting room have been repurposed for people to decompress and reflect. There’s also a comment box for visitors.
Brown said guests have shared their thoughts on the history and continuation of racism. She read a visitor's comment:
"Brutal," the visitor wrote. "This history makes me reflect on how normalized segregation was, and in so many ways, how segregated we still are. Sure, there aren't any mandates on which entrances folks can use, but look at our judicial system. Look at the racial profile of so many corporations and board of directors. Look at how many old white men make our laws. I'm super mad about it."
Brown's takeaway from the visitor's message is that they are very aware of how systematic racism still exists.
Frishman said the segregated histories of buildings like the ice cream shop are often camouflaged. During his research, he saw a familiar place: The Paramount Theatre in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He had driven past the building several times, but never noticed the defunct entrance for people of color. It still snakes up the back of the brick building.
"To me, it was a fire escape, and to most people who see it, that's what they think," he said. "That's what so much of these pictures represent. Our history, for better and worse, is often represented around us in a physical way. But we're not sharp enough to realize it."
Brown pointed to a picture of a former jazz club in Chicago, which was especially popular in the 1920s and '40s. The building now functions as a beauty shop, but its history as the Grand Terrace Café can be seen in the original jazz-themed mural inside the store.
"I think this photograph is really interesting because it is literally an image that points back to a very robust inclusive history of jazz musicians being welcomed into a space," she said. "Now it's just a store. I think Rich captured very eloquently that this is what a hair store looks like in a Black community with different various objects being for sale. The mural just kind of fell into disrepair."
Frishman said he was inspired to start taking photos of the “Ghosts of Segregation” after the 2016 presidential election.
“It was the election that caused me to reflect on what it means to live in America," he said. "My nostalgia for when I grew up represented a really privileged view of the world."
Frishman added that photographing the sites is one of his continued efforts in learning about other people and cultures.
"As much as I try, it's still limited. I need to talk with people who have had other experiences than I do."
He hopes people leave the exhibition with a new perspective on how to understand the hardships that others endure.
Frishman will host a free Virtual Artist Talk on Sept. 8. A Zoom link will be posted on the Museum’s website, charlesallis.org.