The national spotlight is on a city that was once among America’s most active slave-trading hubs: Montgomery, Alabama has opened the first-ever museum and memorial to the victims of lynching and enslavement in the United States. A visit to the city is an opportunity to reckon with America’s racial divide. As they confront this history, visitors may find both motivation and will to continue moving forward.
The Legacy Museum: From enslavement to mass incarceration
‘You are standing on a site where enslaved people were warehoused.’
There’s no sugar-coating history at The Legacy Museum. Those words, painted in white on the lobby’s brick walls, set the tone for what’s to come. This museum, along with the associated Memorial to Peace and Justice, challenges visitors to acknowledge past injustices and their echoes in the present – not just in Alabama, but across America.
In 1820, Alabama was home to 41,879 slaves. By 1860, that population swelled to more than 435,000, among the largest population of enslaved black people in America. That year, Alabama’s capital city had more slave-trading spaces than it did churches and hotels. Montgomery was a hub for slave trade, thanks to the easy transport via railroads and the Alabama River, located blocks from the museum.
The Legacy Museum is intentionally located near the transit that made slave trade possible, in a building where black people were once stored with livestock and cotton. Like the neighboring memorial, the Legacy Museum was curated and created by the Montgomery-based nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, which has worked for decades to help communities and individuals affected by poverty and inequality, most notably through providing legal aid to death row prisoners. The 11,000-sq-ft facility deploys a variety of tools to guide guests through this fraught history.
As visitors leave the lobby, they descend into the darkness of slave pens. In each cell, a projected video of an enslaved person shares an individual experience. The voices vary in age – children are housed in a cell adjacent to an older woman whose imprisonment can’t keep her from singing. Their stories allow visitors to understand how the slave trade affected enslaved people in various ways.
After exiting the slave pens, a timeline of facts, quotes and images demonstrate how a history of enslavement continues to result in racial disparity, linking slavery through the Jim Crow era to the mass incarceration of modern times. Much of the information is presented in literal black-and-white displays. But the exhibits often include questions, leaving room to explore the many shades of gray in American history.
The museum sometimes uses art to draw visitors in, as in the cases of many watercolor-illustrated videos on screens throughout the space. Paintings and sculptures prompt viewers to pause and contemplate the many stories they’ve encountered. A reflection room honors those who have raised their voices against hate. These displays draw clear lines to current-day problems like police brutality and racial disparity. As visitor Maria Dunn of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, noted on opening day, the museum can be a therapeutic experience. As in therapy, sometimes people must revisit the past to understand its mistakes and pain. Then, they might move toward healing.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Slavery was built on and justified by a belief that white people are inherently superior to those with darker skin. After the 13th amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, many former slave owners and other white people would not come to terms with the idea that their former property now merited equal treatment.
For more than 80 years, the practice of lynching was a common way for whites to assert dominance over African American communities across the country. Lynching was a death sentence, delivered by a white mob without any sort of trial over a small offense or, often, a fabricated one. For example, Elizabeth Lawrence of Jefferson County, Alabama, was killed for scolding young white boys for throwing rocks at her. Death was usually by hanging, and victims were frequently tortured before death or disfigured afterward by the crowd. This sort of terrorism, along with convict leasing and other practices, helped keep black people subordinate to whites.
Many lynchings were carried out in public, in the town square. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice echoes that environment with its central memorial framed as a square. Boston-based MASS Design Group, which aided in the design, believes architecture can project an organization’s values. That design sensibility is evident throughout the memorial.
As visitors enter the space, they encounter row after row of steel columns. Each column is engraved with a county or state name, followed by the names of those lynched in that place and the dates the violence took place. At 6ft high, the columns evoke the humans they represent. At the square’s entrance, visitors stand face-to-face with this history. But as they proceed through the memorial, the ground slopes lower and lower. Eventually, the viewer stands beneath the columns, craning their necks to take in the names of each place.
The resulting crick in the neck invites visitors to reflect on the experiences of those who gathered to watch lynchings. Why was this violence so accepted, so celebrated, that people would gather to gawk? How must other people of color have felt as they watched their peers killed without trial, and in most cases without guilt?
Visitors exit the memorial square into a courtyard lined with columns identical to the ones they’ve just seen. Each of the 800 counties where lynching occurred can claim these duplicate columns and create their own memorials. As this happens them, the courtyard will change, with empty spaces providing evidence of places that have chosen to confront their pasts – and a record of the places that have not.
As in The Legacy Museum, The National Memorial uses sculpture to engage with visitors. The works distributed around the grounds depict the naked terror of African people draped in chains for transport to America and honor women who, like Rosa Parks, challenged segregation. Informational panels throughout the park inform visitors, as well as prompt them to reflect on how the nation’s painful past has shaped its present.
More Montgomery history
The pair of Equal Justice Initiative sites aren’t the only places in Montgomery that deal with the state's complicated history. A little more than a mile away, the First White House of the Confederacy offers a glimpse of life in the Confederate States of America. The home was the executive residence for Confederate president Jefferson Davis for only four months. Montgomery was chosen as the Confederacy’s first capital for the same reasons it became a hub for slave trade: its proximity to railways and rivers. The home, built in 1835, is furnished with original pieces from the 1850s and 1860s. Its lavish décor stands in stark contrast to the experience of black people in the same era.
Next door to the First White House, the Museum of Alabama at the Alabama Department of Archives & History helps place these events in historical context. Guests can explore Alabama’s past, beginning in the 1700s and continuing through modern times. They’ll learn about the Creek Indians and the state’s founding as Europeans settled the land. As visitors explore the museum and its many artifacts, they’ll learn about Alabama’s agricultural heritage and difficult moments, such as its secession from the United States and its role in the Civil Rights movement. Young visitors can also enjoy interactive history lessons in the Hands-On Gallery and Grandma’s Attic.
Pause for reflection at the Civil Rights Memorial, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The outdoor memorial features a large circular, granite table engraved with names and events from the civil rights movement. Water bubbles up from the table’s center and spills over the edges. The water echoes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s words, engraved on a wall behind the fountain: ‘We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ The memorial is accessible 24 hours a day. The adjacent Memorial Center teaches visitors about Civil Rights martyrs, and its Wall of Tolerance invites them to pledge to stand against hate.
Make it happen
The two Equal Justice Initiative sights could easily fill a day on their own, so you’d be wise to plan an overnight stay in Montgomery. The Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa and the DoubleTree by Hilton are both steps from The Legacy Museum, as well as the city’s Riverfront district. For a more intimate experience just a few blocks farther afield, try Red Bluff Cottage Bed & Breakfast. The inn’s four bedrooms may be booked for $155 or less per night, and each offers a private bathroom. Nearby Riverfront Park offers space to reflect on the history you’ve learned.