MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In an era where the nation struggles with racial justice, the newly expanded Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama seeks equality for all Americans.
Through first-person narratives, films, 3-D images and other forms of storytelling, the Legacy Museum’s “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” provides an in-depth look into the legacy of slavery, starting from the Transatlantic Slave Trade up through its impact to current day issues Black Americans face.
“We need to reckon with and acknowledge that history. I believe there’s something better waiting for us that feels more like freedom, that feels more like equality is waiting for us. and for us to get there, we’re going to have to talk about the challenges that we face,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative which oversees the museum.
Montgomery, a central location in the slave trade and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., was a fitting site for the museum, which is now housed at the site of a former cotton plantation where enslaved persons were forced into labor. Stevenson — an attorney who focuses his career on representing those on death row, wrongly convicted and unfairly sentenced — moved to Montgomery in the 1980s, launching his interest in starting the museum.
“At that time, there were 59 markers and memorials to the Confederacy, but you couldn’t find the word slave, slavery or enslavement anywhere in this city. We romanticized the architects of slavery, but we did not acknowledge the brutality of enslavement,” he said. “…Because we haven’t done that here, we are sitting in a space where the landscape is literally an iconography of the Confederacy, where we have not honestly confronted some of this history. I think that makes us vulnerable to bigotry, anti-semitism, racist behavior and to overcome that we need to engage in this reckoning.”
The Legacy Museum opened in 2018 on Coosa Street accompanied by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a site dedicated to victims of lynchings in the U.S. at 417 Caroline Street; the new expanded Legacy Museum at 400 North Court Street is 40,000 square feet, four times the size of the former location.
“The old museum was at capacity most of the time and [many topics] hadn’t been addressed,” Stevenson said. “There was more to the story.”
Some of the key displays in the new museum include:
• Transatlantic and domestic slave trade
In contrast to the old museum which focused more on domestic slave trade, the new museum tells the chilling stories of both domestic and transatlantic slave trade.
In doing so, visitors are met with screens describing the deadly ocean journey of more than 12 million Black enslaved persons kidnapped from Africa. Hundreds of faux sanded bodies with a large screen ocean back drop depicts the 2 million slaves who were buried at sea during the journey.
“I think the power and legacy of that journey hasn’t really been addressed,” Stevenson said. “The loss that that journey created for millions of Black people, we haven’t reckoned with the tragedy of that horrific experience. I really wanted to engage people’s minds and heart [with that exhibit]. I wanted to dramatize kidnapping and them being disconnected from their identities.”
Holograms of enslaved women, men and children locked in various cells can be seen during slave trade exhibits, which through writing and video, elaborates on the roles each of the coastal and southern cities and states played in domestic slave trade, shaping the economy of the U.S.
• Violence and reconstruction
Visitors can learn about Black experiences post-Civil War including the domestic terrorism Blacks faced in their fight for civil rights.
As Blacks protested for rights like voting and attending schools, they were often met with unparalleled violence, with no protection from governing and policing authorities, the museum shows.
Mass lynchings of Black people became customary as white Southerners fought to establish superiority and disenfranchise Blacks.
The lynching exhibit contextualizes the role of the media, as lynchings were public knowledge and often printed in newspapers.
Copies of some of those newspapers are displayed in the museum, one indicating a man was lynched for not saying, “Mr.” Another triple lynching had been documented in Georgia as “Lynchers couldn’t find the negro they wanted and so took three others.”
Final words of some victims can be seen, some of them refusing to admit any wrongdoing before their deaths.
“The conviction to risk your life to advance justice that flows through this entire space that’s what I find the most moving,” Stevenson said. “ [They] held on to their integrity and dignity, even though it cost them their life.”
• Segregation and discrimination
The museum details the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other civil rights protests and movements, noting the role of judges, governors and senators in trying to maintain segregation and white supremacy.
Forty-one states made it illegal for interracial white and Black marriages; in 2000, Alabama became the last state to allow interracial marriage.
“This says something really important about how entrenched this narrative of racial difference was,” Stevenson said.
Museum guests can participate in a simulation of filling out a sample voter registration form containing questions that Blacks were required to answer in order to vote. Some questions included guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar on display and knowing how many bubbles are in a bar of soap.
“White people who were illiterate could vote, while Black people had to take these so-called literacy tests,” Stevenson explained. “They were more than tests on literacy, they posed questions that were unanswerable and that just reveals the commitment people had on maintaining disenfranchisement of African American communities.”
• Mass incarceration
The museum connects how today’s criminal just system is rooted in the U.S.’s history of racial injustice.
The legal system was used as tool to suppress the Civil Rights Movement, with more than 3,000 people arrested for sit-ins or protests by 1961, the museum notes. That, and the “War on Drugs” in the 80s and 90s, among other racial issues, has led to current day struggles of mass incarceration. Two-thirds of people incarcerated for drugs nationwide are people of color, EJI notes.
The museum attributes the era of racial terror and the mass incarceration of Blacks to the racialization of criminality, as “whites defended violence against Blacks as necessary to protect property, families and Southern way of life.”
“The presumption of dangerousness and guilt assigned against Black people is a real burden and challenge,” Stevenson said. “If you’re Black or brown you will go places in this country where you have to navigate a presumption of dangerousness and guilt.”
Heart-wrenching letters from former and current Black inmates serving life sentences for drug-related crimes, or wrongly convicted and incarcerated children are featured in the museum, many asking for help and justice.
Model visitation booths allow museum visitors to sit, pick up a phone and hear the stories of current or former Black inmates expressing similar sentiments.
“Our clients had hope and courage to educate people despite the harm they’ve suffered as the result of wrongful convictions,” Stevenson said. “To create a first-person museum where you get to hear the actual words of enslaved people, people facing lynchings, people who dealt with segregation, people who have been incarcerated, those are really important because I don’t think that anybody can be more persuasive about the harm of injustice than the people directly impacted.”
A history that must be talked about
The self-guided museum tour concludes with a large reflection room with music and pictures of activists who risked their lives for Black civil rights.
Stevenson said he wants people to leave the museum encouraged, inspired, and he hopes the experience will go a long way toward eliminating distorted and inaccurate views of Black people.
“We as a community and nation have a role to play. I think most Germans who are not Jewish will tell you that they are at a better place by reckoning honestly with the legacy of the Holocaust,” Stevenson said. “I want all Americans to be able to have pride in their community, un-compromised by the dirty secret that we don’t talk about which is the lynchings, enslavement or segregation. When we commit to that different future, we can all be truly connected and truly joined in kind of a new vision of what it means to be a citizen.”
The new museum opened Oct. 1. Admission to both the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum is $5. Pannie-George’s Kitchen and bookstore is also onsite for guests to visit. The museum and memorial are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.