Expanded museum traces America’s legacy of slavery


MONTGOMERY, Alabama (AP) – Statues of chained men, women and children hauntingly rise from the sand as simulated waves crash overhead, a symbol for the estimated two million people for which the slave trade ended in an aquatic tomb in the Atlantic Ocean.

The exhibit is part of an expanded museum created by the Equal Justice initiative that focuses on the legacy of slavery in America. The expanded Legacy Museum – a companion to the well-known lynching victims group memorial – opens Friday and takes visitors on a journey through the origins of the slave trade through the civil rights era to the problems modern criminal justice systems.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said the museum’s goal is to teach and confront “parts of American history that are not frequently taught,” an understanding that he says is a prerequisite for the country to move forward and heal.

“I believe there is something better ahead of us in America. I think there is something more like equality, more freedom, more justice than what we’ve known yet. But to get there, we’re going to have to face the damage caused by the problem, the lingering challenges that have been created by this long history of racial inequality, ”Stevenson said in a telephone interview.

The museum ranges from the days of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration and modern criminal justice issues that are central to the legal work of the Equal Justice Initiative.

The 40,000 square foot (3,700 square meters) Legacy Museum in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, sits on the site of a former cotton warehouse. “You are at the site where enslaved blacks were forced to work in bondage,” it reads

In a dark hallway, images of speaking slaves are projected onto the walls behind cell bars and speak to visitors standing in front of them. The first is that of a woman pleading for children who have been taken from her. In another, two children huddle together.

“Mum, mum … Have you seen our mother?” they call.

One wall is lined with earthenware pots from the sites where the lynching victims were murdered. In another exhibit, visitors are invited to take a Jim Crow-era literacy test to record the vote.

“How many jelly beans are in the jar in front of you?” How many seeds are there in a watermelon?

Stevenson’s early legal work focused on representing death row inmates, obtaining exemptions for those wrongly convicted, and he described how some judges assumed he was the accused because of the color of his skin. His memoir Just Mercy became a film of the same name.

Stevenson said he came to believe that slavery had not disappeared but evolved, meaning that the elaborate myth of black inferiority used to justify slavery centuries ago did not not only disappeared in 1865.

“And even with the passage of civil rights laws, we still presume things about black people, when we see them, and that’s part of the reason there is so much frustration around: Black people being arrested for. sitting in a Starbucks or being in a library or, you know, walking the sidewalk, ”Stevenson said.

The Equal Justice Initiative opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018. The memorial commemorates 4,400 blacks who were killed in lynchings and other racial murders between 1877 and 1950. Their names, when they are known, are engraved on 800 coffins. -shaped columns.

The organization aims to create a space for people to confront and “deal honestly with this story”, just as South Africa has apartheid sites and Germany commemorates the victims of the Holocaust.

“One of the things we say is that the purpose of the museum is to create a society where our children’s children are not burdened by this history of racial inequality, are free to roam throughout their lives without let no presumption be made, based on their color, “Stevenson said.” But to get there we have work to do and I hope that will inspire people to do that work. “

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