We went to Montgomery, Alabama, USA to think about history, our countries and our own. As a historian and a novelist, neither of us is especially adept at the confessional mode; it's possible that we take pains to avoid it. We do talk a fair amount about race-we talk a fair amount about everything, since our friendship is of the cross-country, intensive-text variety-and, when the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened, in April, we began passing back and forth articles about them.
In June, we had a chance to see them in person, and to spend a few days together. We knew that the museum and memorial would ask different things of black and white visitors, and that the trip would shake us.
From 1850 until the end of the Civil War, Montgomery was the Southern port most active in slave trading-even surpassing New Orleans, where an estimated hundred and thirty-five thousand human souls were auctioned between 1804 and 1862. The city's past is inescapable on its sleepy downtown streets, almost deserted on a humid Friday afternoon. Markers draw attention to the curb where Rosa Parks stepped onto a bus and refused to give up her seat;
to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., served as a pastor from 1954 to 1960; to the First White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis lived until 1861, when the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond.
At the intersection of Commerce Street and Dexter Avenue, once known as the "romantic center" of the city, stands the Court Square Fountain, topped with a corroded statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth and cupbearer to the Olympian gods.
A nearby marker explains that this is the site where "slaves of all ages were auctioned, along with land and livestock, standing in a line to be inspected." When it was placed at the fountain, in 2002, the city councilman Tracy Larkin said that the past is often "painful and embarrassing" but that it must be studied and known.
Today there is a craft-coffee shop across the street, on the first floor of a building from 1898, which was home to the S. H. Kress & Co. department store. During a recent renovation, workers found bricks made by enslaved women, which were donated to the Equal Justice Initiative. Hip and industrial, it resembles a coffee shop that one might find in San Francisco. It seems odd for such a place to look out on a former slave market, especially given the historic connection between slavery and coffee.
Yet these two spaces appear to be in deep conversation with each other. The shop's owners, who are white, got interested in ethically sourced coffee while working for an N.G.O. in West Africa. We ordered coffee and biscuits and wondered whether the past that has made Alabama infamous could be a force for economic development, as the new memorial draws visitors to the area. Would that revival benefit its citizens equally? The name of the coffee shop, which isn't visible from the street outside, is Prevail Union.
Between the fountain and the Alabama River, the Legacy Museum occupies a building that was once a warehouse for human chattel. Just past the entrance, a ramp slopes down to five "slave pens," behind which ghostly holograms in nineteenth-century costume tell their stories. Visitors huddle around the pens and listen closely, as the figures speak in hushed tones. The effect is authentic-maybe because this is a building where such scenes took place, and the testimonies are those of real people.
The ghostly prisoners include two children dressed in white nightshirts. "Mama!" they cry. "Mama?" And then politely, calmly, the older child, as if he knows that everything depends on his ability to hold it together, asks, "Have you seen our mother?"
The Equal Justice Initiative's founder, Bryan Stevenson, began defending death-row inmates in Alabama thirty years ago, and, like a great legal argument, the Legacy Museum relies on both emotion and a precise accumulation of evidence. As visitors leave the ghosts in the cages, the museum painstakingly shows how slavery, after Reconstruction, was "dusted off and repurposed" in the American penal system.
The words of an enslaved man named Aaron, near the entrance, seem to have prophesied a person like Stevenson: "Go to the slave auction! See humans from infancy to gray hairs sold. See human souls bartered for cash. See families that God hath joined together, separated, never more to meet in this world. Count, if you can, the groans, fathom the bitter woes, occasioned by these separations .?.?. . Follow out the investigation into its detail, and you will begin to learn the greatness of the sin."
One exhibit wall holds shelves of Mason jars filled with soil from lynching sites. Each jar is labelled with the name of the victim, the date of death, and the county where the lynching took place. In a nearby alcove, a video tells the story of John Hartfield, who was hunted for ten days and critically wounded after he was accused of assaulting a white woman. He was kept alive by a white doctor until a crowd of ten thousand people could assemble to witness the spectacle of his lynching.
On June 26, 1919, in Ellisville, Mississippi, after stump speeches were delivered, a jubilant crowd, amid food vendors selling refreshments, watched as a group of white men hanged Hartfield from a gum tree and riddled his body with two thousand bullets. The shots severed the rope, Hartfield's body fell to the ground, and his corpse was immediately burned. Spectators passed around his severed fingers and bought postcard souvenirs for twenty cents. The next scene in the video shows Vanzetta Penn McPherson, a retired Alabama district judge, and Anthony Ray Hinton, an Alabamian who was exonerated after thirty years on death row, carefully filling a Mason jar marked "John Temple, Montgomery, AL, September 30, 1919."
At one point, McPherson abruptly puts down her shovel and asks Hinton to pray with her: "We pause so very briefly this morning to remember a man who we did not know, but, in so many ways, who we do know. We pray that the sacrifices he so involuntarily made .?.?. strengthen us, edify us, and help us to move forward in a way that will prevent this from ever occurring again."
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a fifteen-minute walk southwest from the museum. On the way there we saw our first Montgomery traffic: a funeral cortège headed in the opposite direction. Our initial view of the memorial was from the intersection of Clayton and Holcombe streets, on its north side, from where the open-air steel structure came suddenly into view behind the peeling sign for F & D Auto Repair. At the top of a hill, we could see the square pavilion of the memorial, its eight hundred and sixteen steel slabs-each one representing a county where a lynching occurred-hanging from the ceiling at even intervals.
The first drops of a summer storm were falling on the gravel path that winds up to the memorial. The mother of a crying baby in a stroller gestured to her older children to get moving. "Walk around, soak it in," she said. The children, looking dubious, hurried under the overhang, to avoid getting soaked themselves. The center of the memorial is a grassy courtyard, open to the sky, and the sky is big in Montgomery, where the tallest building stands twenty-two stories. The rain got heavier fast. Water flooded the gravel path, and ran off the steel slabs marked with the county names. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented four thousand and seventy-five lynching's in twelve states between 1877 and 1950. This death toll includes eight hundred more murders than scholars had previously counted.
Among the first names that a visitor might see are those of the three men on the monument for Shelby County, Tennessee: Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart. They operated a successful grocery store in Memphis that bested a white business. Their gruesome murders, on March 9, 1892, scarred their friend Ida B. Wells, who spent the rest of her life speaking out and writing the truth about lynching.
Nearly two decades later, in Elaine, Arkansas, a white mob killed two hundred and thirty-seven black men, women, and children in two days. It was the deadliest of approximately twenty five massacres during the summer and early fall of 1919, a period known as the Red Summer. African-American soldiers who had fought for their country in the First World War returned home with high hopes for the recognition of their military service and their humanity.
As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in "Returning Soldiers," an editorial published in The Crisis, in 1919, "We are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land .?.?. . We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting." Southern whites, fearful of black veterans' growing assertiveness, lynched them in their military uniforms.
The designation "Unknown" memorializes many victims of racial terror. A gentle stream of water runs down a wide wall, on the lower level of the memorial, with a statement that promises to honor those souls, too.
Allyson Hobbs is a contributing writer for newyorker.com. She is an associate professor of American history and the director of African and African-American studies at Stanford University.
Nell Freudenberger is the author of two novels, "The Newlyweds" and "The Dissident," and a book of short stories, "Lucky Girls."
-Allyson Hobbs and
Leave Your Comments