by Lisa Bryant
(Editor’s Note: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum are located in Montgomery, Ala. For more information, visit https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial, call (334) 386-9100, or email [email protected]. For groups, email [email protected].)
When I shared with friends that I was planning a visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, reactions were mixed.
Some said there was no way they could make such a solemn trip, while others were intrigued and said the sites were on their to-do list as well.
Confronting accounts of our country’s brutal, horrific history of slavery, lynching, its crushing effects of segregation on black Americans is indeed painful. Connecting that history to how justice today is meted out on Black men and women is equally hard. But it is a necessary confrontation.
Located in Montgomery, Ala., on the very site where slaves were warehoused before being sold locally or transported to other states, The Legacy Museum is the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), headed by acclaimed public interest lawyer and author, Bryan Stevenson. Part of EJI’s mission is to ensure that all of America’s history is told, including its viscous history of slavery.
As a visually impaired African-American, I wondered if the collection was accessible. So prior to my visit, I contacted the staff and inquired about accommodations. The staff was receptive and seamlessly arranged for a guided tour. I learned they also had about 50 braille guidebooks on site. It seemed accessibility had carefully been considered.
“I’ve always cared deeply about exclusion and what it’s like to be marginalized,” said Stevenson, adding that accessibility was incorporated at inception. “We believe everyone needs to confront the legacy of racial injustice that undermines fair treatment for people in this society, and we want our spaces to be as accessible as possible.”
The first exhibit shows the incredible albeit dishonorable role Alabama, and Montgomery in particular, played in the domestic slave trade. Through my guide, Ariel, I learned that in 1860, the state had more slave trading spaces than either churches or hotels, and that in that same year, two-thirds of Montgomery’s population were slaves. Further, Montgomery led the state in the domestic slave trade, while Alabama ranked second in the nation as having the most slaveowners.
Following the main entrance exhibits, visitors are then led to a hallway featuring holograms of slaves recounting their traumatic stories. I listened to a young woman painstakingly detail her experience of her family being warehoused, then separated from her sister, never to see her again. The ramp leading to the holograms is dark, so low-vision guests should exercise caution. Hearing these re-enactments is a powerful audio experience.
Visitors then enter the main gallery, which displays the extensive research EJI has compiled on slavery, lynching, and segregation. As expected, there are plenty of photos; but the exhibit is dense with text and in various forms such as strips that run down the walls and on the floor. Also on display are replicas of posters advertising slaves for sale (with great details to entice a potential buyer), and ransom notices for runaway slaves. Ariel was quite thorough in reading and describing. I also found the Seeing AI app helpful.
In the center of the main gallery is the Racial Terror Lynching Map, an interactive touch-screen kiosk. The map is a visual representation of EJI’s five-plus years of researching lynchings in the United States.1 The research found there were more than 4,000 lynchings in a dozen states. This figure represents what they were able to document — the toll could be much higher.
Using the touch screen, you can select a state and see not only the number of lynchings in that state but also the names of the victims. The touch screen is accessible for those with partial or low vision, but there is no audio, braille, or tactile component to this exhibit.
In the same kiosk are videos from current, direct descendants of lynched victims. The stories are graphic and difficult to take in. While the audio is good quality, there is no braille or tactile accessibility.
Just beyond the interactive kiosk sit over 300 jars of soil gathered through the Community Soil Collection Project. EJI began the project in 2015 with volunteers collecting the soil from documented lynching sites across the country. This is a moving display, with each jar bearing the names of murdered men and women along with the county and date of their lynching. My guide read a selection of these names for me. I did not test it, but I believe Seeing AI would have read the text.
As you move to the exhibits of segregation, there are mounted quotes, facts, and videos, some recognizable, such as interviews of Martin Luther King Jr. There are also videos of staunch segregationists. One I found particularly disturbing was a white preacher using Bible verses to support segregation. This section is a bit challenging; many of the videos are playing simultaneously, and it is difficult to tune out the background noise. Plus, some videos are louder than others. There are audio jacks for only some of the videos.
Although the last major exhibit is of our contemporary era, it eerily connects incarceration today of black men to slavery, lynching and segregation. Through a simulated prison visit, actual inmates tell their stories. Visitors enter a booth, pick up the phone and hear the individual’s account. One of the more tragic stories is that of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row in Alabama. Stevenson personally defended Hinton, and it took over 12 years before forensic evidence finally proved Hinton’s innocence.
What makes Hinton’s case a haunting reminder of slavery and lynching is the blatant disregard for truth and the deliberate attacks on the rights of Black people. Hinton recalls being told by an arresting white officer that it did not matter if he was innocent; he was going to be convicted. Similarly, lynching victims were often murdered for the slightest offenses, some hardly rising to the level of a crime. On display are records of victims lynched for failing to respectfully address a white person.
As you exit the museum, you enter the Reflection Space with scores of photos of abolitionists, freedom fighters – some known and quite a few that never made the headlines but were just as noteworthy. My guide provided descriptions, but narrator apps will also help you independently experience this gallery.
The museum offers daily shuttle buses to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial site is a serene yet solemn space, and is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the history of slavery and lynching.
Just as you enter the space, you are met with a harrowingly realistic and life-sized sculpture of six chained and shackled slaves. One is a woman clutching a baby – also in chains. There appear to be streaks of blood running down the bodies of each piece.
There are sculptures throughout, but the main exhibit is the 800 six-foot-high slabs of steel bearing the names of lynched victims and the counties where they were lynched. The pillars are suspended, evoking the act of lynching. However, this is not designed to be a touch exhibit; in fact, many are not within reach. There is ample room surrounding the pillars for white cane users, but the heights of suspension vary, so taller visitors need to proceed carefully.
Stevenson said that the EJI team continues to explore ways to keep the memorial and the museum accessible. He noted that feedback from white cane users led them to change the surfaces of paths at both sites for smoother navigation.
According to Stevenson, there are a half-dozen guides trained, with an emphasis on assisting blind and visually impaired guests with the content of both spaces. He also added that as COVID-19 restrictions lift and attendance increases, they will train more guides. The staff has also prepared more audio guides and braille materials. The goal is to eventually have all content available in braille.
A special thanks to Ariel and the staff who helped me fully experience this dark history. As for the memorial space, Stevenson said guided tours were suspended due to pandemic restrictions, but they are committed to restoring that accommodation.
1 The Legacy Museum Book, EJI staff