In the heart of the deep south, in Montgomery, Alabama, public interest attorney and social justice stalwart, Bryan Stevenson, earmarked a part of US history and present reality that many want to forget.
Through the nonprofit, Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson along with a collective of partners and volunteers, opened on April 26 of this year, two historical sites: The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, as well as, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Through the locations, one is an indoor interactive museum; the other, an outdoor memorial, the Equal Justice Initiative tells the story of enslavement, segregation and mass incarceration through the eyes of those directly impacted. More importantly, the museum and memorial show how all three distinct eras are intricately linked, and further, speak on the painful legacy of how systems are maintained through the use of racial terror and racist policy.
America’s history on display and on trial
The Legacy Museum, located in downtown Montgomery, stands at a depot, where enslaved Blacks and Natives were housed before being auctioned off like cattle. When you enter, you are told that you are standing on hallowed ground.
A map shows you how Montgomery was one of the major hubs to trade enslaved people in some of the most inhumane ways. There were about a dozen other main sites that include, New Orleans, Charleston, Baltimore, Richmond and New York.
At one point, Montgomery had more businesses dedicated to the business of slavery than inns and restaurants. That is how profitable enslaved people were in the Americas.
Towards the end of the exhibition are jars of earth collected throughout the east coast, midwest and south. From red clay to fertile brown dirt, the collected soil was taken where numerous racial terrors took place.
The earth at the museum, and dirt from the surrounding warehouse is sacred because it is filled with memories, tears and blood that have saturated the red soil for centuries. By walking through the museum, you understand just how traumatic the experience was for enslaved people in a series of interactive displays that take you from the holding cells of mothers, children and fathers to a story that leads to current photographs and pictures depicting the chattel-like ways that mass incarceration adopted to hold a disproportionate number of people of color, including youth.
In between, music, movies and photo exhibitions give grave details of then, and now. Like in Alabama, segregation is still legal in their state legislation.
Holy land of blood and bones
For those who did not understand just how profoundly macabre the Black experience is in the US, the memorial will make more sense. Once you are finished, you either board a shuttle or drive to the outdoor memorial that is minutes away. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice sits on a hill, right in the pocket of Montgomery’s African-American community.
The Peace and Justice Memorial is the only site that attempts to collect and make public, all the names or incidents in which blacks were killed.
The area is serene, and holy, and sad. As you walk along a path, you are provided with details of the gruesome slave trade. At points along a pathway, sculptures marking the traumatic experience. It shows scenes of families were divided, children stripped from parents, and merciless beatings and killings took place to funnel a system that funneled the foundation of US economy and infrastructure.
Next, the time period speaks of moments after the emancipation of those in slavery, to where Blacks were killed without impunity, now called racial terrors or racial killings. From Florida up to New York, west to Illinois, and back down to Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Maryland, the Carolinas, Virginia, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, Blacks were lynched, shot, drowned, raped, burned and beaten to death in multiple ways. Some killings were public displays, while others were middle-of-the-night takeovers.
To make the experience more telling, during the time that you are there, you will see families of those killed, searching for the names of their forebears who fell victim to the atrocities, and even those who are descendants of the perpetrators. As I too, looked for people on my mother’s and father’s side.
To acknowledge the over 4,000 accounts of racial terrors that the organization uncovered in research, the most extensive collection to date, Equal Justice Initiative brought on a bevy of artisans to create a mausoleum of caskets made with a type of steel that does not corrode or rusts, but everytime it is exposed to water, it turns a reddish-brown color that resembles the weeping of bloody tears.
Caskets of names are set on the floor or hang from above. The memorial runs in alphabetical order and is set in a circle, so that the lives of those past and the present, remember that the circle of life must not be broken again.
Along the path, are droplets of short stories captured on small plaques recounting the killings. Eerily, many of them resemble accounts that you hear about in today’s news.
Account 1: A black man was lynched in Millersburg, Ohio, in 1892 for standing around in a white neighborhood.
Account 2: After Calvin Mike voted in Calhoun County, Georgia, in 1884, a white mob attacked and burned his home, lynching his elderly mother and his two young daughters, Emma and Lillie.
Account 3: Bud Spears was lynched in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, in 1n 1888 for protesting the recent lynching of another black man.
Account 4: Benjamin Little was lynched near Mt. Pleasant, Texas, in 1885 after he was accused of “slandering a respectable white family.”
Account 5: Three brothers with the surname Sylvester were lynched in Proctor, West Virginia, in 1886 after they were accused of theft.
Account 6: Sampson Harris was lynched in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, in 1885 after threatening to report white men for whipping his neighbors.
Account 7: George Briscoe was lynched in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1884 for an alleged robbery.
Account 8: Charlotte Harris was lynched in Rockingham County, Virginia, in 1878 after a white man’s barn burned down.
Account 9: Caleb Gadly was lynched in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 1894 for walking behind the wife of his white employer.
Account 10: William Lewis was lynched in Tullahoma, Tennessee, in 1891 for being intoxicated.
As a needed reprieve and a moment to give guests to reflect and grieve, situated at the end of the caskets is a water fountain that scales a whole wall. Going to the water for healing is an ancient tradition, that still holds significant today. On the wall of the fountain, words to acknowledge those names unknown in racialized killings, and those people or accounts that may go uncovered.
From the large exhibition, you walk around to more caskets that rest on a grassy area like coffins at a mass grave. The caskets show guests the names again to ensure that the dead are found.
Along the pathway, when you look past the memorial, you see that you are surrounded by a Black community that still stands in spite of the sordid history of Montgomery. It actually is very peaceful, as you look one way and see a church called Old Zion and thick, lush vegetation hugging older structures. For guests, the site is holy land, and the community welcomes those guests who grieve.
When walking towards the end is a sculpture of showing the heads of men with their hands to the sky. This commemorates those lost in the shooting deaths by law enforcement.
In one way or the other, you cannot help not to cry or pause at the pain endured by a people still fighting for truth, justice and a sense of peace.
Many have been reticent to come to Montgomery, but it is not only critical to know the fabric that weaves the US, but who makes up the fabric quilted together in stories that people like Steven Bryan Stevenson are committed to tell.