Traveling: Alabama’s Legacy Museum Brings Slavery To Life

Former Youth and Family Services Director Sue Baldauf and her husband, John Gibbons, Senior Minister of First Parish in Bedford, found Montgomery, Alabama’s new museum “haunting and memorable” when they visited this summer.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a short shuttle ride from the Legacy Museum – Click to view a full-sized image

En route by car to a wedding in Atlanta, Georgia, this July, my husband and I found ourselves with a couple of extra days after stopping in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and visiting with friends in North Carolina.  We decided to do a brief civil rights tour to Alabama, primarily to see the new Legacy Museum in Montgomery, the state capital.

We had read reviews about the museum in various publications where it was called the “lynching museum.”  Since Montgomery was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama and Alabama was one of the largest slave-owning states in the US, this new museum was established on the site of a former warehouse for enslaved black people.

The museum itself is in downtown Montgomery not far from the river dock & train station where multitudes of enslaved people were trafficked.  Though wary of driving into a capital city, we were astonished at how easy it was compared to driving into Boston on a weekday.  Traffic was minimal, parking was ample, and the city seemed asleep for a state capital.  Having purchased the timed entry tickets on line the night before, admission was smooth though security is such that everything comes out of pockets before going through the metal detector, so the only thing I lost was my hotel keycard, which was easily replaced.

 

The museum brochure states, “The Legacy Museum employs unique technology to dramatize the enslavement of African Americans and tell the story of how slavery evolved through the eras of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation, and mass incarceration.”  Particularly moving were the life-size holographic images of slaves telling their stories right in front of you, speaking directly to you.  Also poignant was the wall of jars filled with dirt dug from sites where lynchings had occurred.  Each jar was named and dated.  The videos accompanying this wall of remembrance were located in secluded nooks where the somber tales showed the volunteers locating the sites, digging the dirt, filling the jars, and talking about the life of the person who had died there.  It was impossible not to be moved.

The history and interactive exhibits were truly one-of-a-kind, and the wall of black leaders and artists highlighted just some of the gifts the US has received, reminding me of phoenixes rising from the ashes.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

From the museum, a shuttle takes you the mile to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice up the hill from downtown on a six-acre site.

The memorial includes over 800 steel coffin-shaped box monuments, one for each county in the US where racial lynchings occurred.  Each box is engraved with the victims from that county.  Walking into the memorial reminded me a bit of walking into the Viet Nam Memorial though I did not feel like I was walking out of the darkness in Montgomery as I had felt walking out of Maya Lin’s memorial in DC.

The box monuments start on pedestals, and then as you proceed around a square, they are hung over the walkway.  As you walk along, the walkway descends so that the boxes dangle, even more, resembling the hangings they represent.

The effect at the end with a wall of water is powerful and cleansing. More than 4000 African American men, women, and children were lynched between 1877 and 1950, predominantly in the south but I did find a couple of counties in my home state of Ohio – not my home county of Marion – and a couple in my husband’s home state of Illinois where lynchings were recorded.  Though no lynchings were recorded in Massachusetts or New England for that matter, the belief exists that thousands more lynchings occurred that were never recorded.

About the Equal Justice Initiative, the Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice is the brainchild of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative(EJI),  an organization based in Montgomery and that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.  EJI is looking for counties where lynchings occurred to create their own memorials in order to confront the truth of this terror in our nation’s history and advance a collective goal of equal justice for all.

While in Alabama, we also did the route to Selma, visited the Selma sites associated with the Martin Luther King march for voting rights in 1965, and toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and associated 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park.  It was the Legacy Museum and Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery that remains the most haunting and memorable.

Click this link to visit the Equal Justice Insitute’s website with its links to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.


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