From slave trade to mass incarceration, museum tells the grim truth

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It’s an emotional monument to American misery, built on the site of the Lehman, Durr and Co. cotton warehouse along the Alabama River that was an epicenter of the slave trade in the 1850s.

The new and expanded Legacy Museum created by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery takes on the ambitious task of telling the story of the transatlantic slave trade, the national slave trade and how it affected every region of early and continuing America. ‘influence the way black Americans are treated in the justice system and in society.

It is a response to the national culture of denial and reluctance to face its past.

“When I moved to Montgomery in the 1980s, we had 59 Confederation markers and memorials in that town, but you couldn’t find the word slave or slavery or slavery anywhere,” said the lawyer and founder of ‘EJI Bryan Stevenson in an interview. in his office next door. “I thought it was dishonest. It was incorrect. It was incomplete.

The Legacy: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum, 400 N. Court St., officially opens its new space on Friday October 1, with free entry on the opening weekend and a $ 5 fee after October 3.

From the first moments of the self-guided tour, when Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o tells the story of slave ships carrying human cargo as a giant Micro-LED screen shows waves splashing in the Atlantic Ocean, the museum delivers a punch of historical facts interspersed with testimonies of slaves, slave owners and politicians.

A smaller version of the museum opened in 2018, along with the National Peace and Justice Memorial, an open-air monument dedicated to victims of lynching. This monument remains open for about a mile and a half as a separate historical tribute and admission to it is included with the $ 5 ticket.

The previous museum had drawn more than 500,000 visitors a year before the pandemic, which coincided with a social revolution sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.

Stevenson, whose best-selling book “Just Mercy” was made into a 2019 film starring Jamie Foxx as death row inmate Walter McMillian and Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, said the reaction to Floyd’s murder had sparked a reaction that included a wave of corporate donations.

“Until 2020, we had never received a penny from corporate donations,” he said. “We had them in the summer and in the fall. We may never have them again. It was sort of a moment. We have recognized it.

Stevenson founded EJI in the 1980s with the aim of providing legal services to the poor with a particular focus on legal aid for wrongly sentenced death row inmates. After Floyd’s death, Stevenson decided to use this influx of financial support to expand the Legacy Museum.

“We wanted to put this money to good use,” he said. “People were anxious and worried about this blatant example of racial injustice that had been filmed in Minnesota and they wanted to react. “

Stevenson is hesitant to sum up the cost of the museum, but says it exceeds $ 10 million.

“DC’s African American History Museum was worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “We could never spend something like that. But we felt we could aspire to the same kind of impact, the same kind of quality with a much lower budget.

Actors such as Nyong’o and Don Cheadle offered to narrate without pay.

“We couldn’t have done this without the generosity, the contributions of artists like that,” he said.

The story of slavery leads directly to a historical account of post-civil war black violence and oppression, segregation, lynching, the civil rights movement, with an emphasis on the boycott of Montgomery bus of 1955-56 and injustice in law enforcement and the justice system and the role of the EJI in assisting wrongly convicted persons. An entire wing is devoted to the issue of mass incarceration.

One exhibit features 800 earthenware pots collected from lynching sites across the country, with the names of the victims on the labels. Another exhibit allows visitors to take a poll test with actual questions that were used to deny black people the right to vote.

There are over 200 new sculptures by African artists. There are original animated shorts that incorporate historical research by EJI staff and academics into the kidnapping and trafficking of millions of blacks as part of the slave trade.

A room called Reflection Space honors 400 influential black leaders, with their portraits on the walls and touch screens that call up each other’s biographies.

The tour ends with an art gallery featuring many renowned black artists, with photography by Gordon Parks, quilts from Gee’s Bend, and leather art by Winfred Rembert.

The lobby and ticket office include a gift shop and a meat-and-three-vegetable-style restaurant open to the public, the Pannie-George Kitchen.

Stevenson said he expects more than a million annual visitors.

“We’re really proud that people have the opportunity to experience this,” Stevenson said.

“I’m really excited that we have this space that opens up,” he said. “I think this is an urgent response to much of the silence we have seen across the country.”


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