Truth Telling & America’s History of Racial Injustices
Day five of our journey began with an emotional tour of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where we learned about African-American history from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
The museum itself is located on the site of a former warehouse used to house enslaved people before being auctioned. From the very first room, visitors find themselves immersed in the experience; you enter a darkened room with floor-to-ceiling imagery and the sound of ocean waves which evokes the sensation of being submerged as you begin to learn about the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. This is immediately followed by a narrow passageway through a deep-sea cemetery of sculpted heads created by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto Bamfo. The installation symbolizes the estimated two million enslaved people who perished at sea before reaching the shores of Europe, North, Central, and South America, etc. These extraordinary sculptures and the short film about the series, “The Lost Ancestors”, shown in one of the theaters in the museum, demonstrate the lasting impact of the slave trade on African nations and the shared history that binds us together.
Each section of the museum provides extensive evidence of the pervasive and systematic oppression of African-Americans throughout our history, as well as the long tradition of organized resistance to racial injustice. High-quality multimedia exhibits and interactive data maps allow the visitor to explore self guided. The exhibits provide a deeper understanding of our shared national history, particularly of episodes that have been muted or erased, and which continue to be threatened with erasure from many of our public school and university curricula today. In one of the short films I watched, of the dedication ceremony for a marker unveiled in honor of lynching victim Anthony Crawford in Abbeville, South Carolina, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) director Bryan Stevenson told the participants: “For a long time, the Earth has been silent about the injury and injustice of what happened to Anthony Crawford […]. But today, we’re going to resurrect that truth.” He then asked participants to repeat the words “We are here!”. Stevenson’s work aims to address contemporary racial injustices by first healing the wounds and scars of the past uncovering the truths about our history of racial injustice.
The importance of truth-telling and investigating the erased stories of the past was reiterated in our visit to the “Mothers of Gynecology” Monument where we met with the artist, Michelle Browder.
Browder described how a postcard on her professor’s desk depicting the “Father of Gynecology,” J. Marion Sims, motivated her to research the names and stories of the unidentified women in the image. She uncovered details about the histories of the three enslaved women— Anarcha, Lucy, Betsey— that Sims bought or leased for his experimentation. Browder learned how to weld in order to create the sculptures pictured below. These powerful sculptures, proudly standing on what is now private, black-owned land, present the essential counter narrative to the monument of J Marion Sims prominently displayed nearby on the grounds of the Alabama State Capitol (along with the likes of Jefferson Davis), despite calls for its removal. Unfortunately, our visit with Browder was cut short by the weather, but we thoroughly enjoyed the unique opportunity to meet the artist herself, and to see the “Mothers of Gynecology” and some of her earlier works in the “She-shed” and on the grounds of The More Up campus.
Finally, heavy rain and lightening prevented our visit to the Monument to Peace & Justice, a stunning representation of the over 4000 victims of lynching that the EJI has documented. We were only able to see it from a distance. A good excuse to return to Montgomery!
As you can imagine, our experiences today elicited many animated discussions between colleagues throughout the day as we reflected on what we saw and learned. Many recounted being moved to tears and/or outrage while engaging with the exhibits at the museum, and awed by the force of Marian Browder and her work. These testimonies to racial injustice are challenging and inspiring, and underscore the importance of not remaining merely being a witness but sharing what we have learned. As we travel, we are reflecting deeply on our own role in this history, and how what we are learning here and the voices of the individuals we have met compel us to ACT, to make a difference once we return to our daily lives.