We went to Montgomery, Alabama, to think about history, our country’s and our own. As a historian and a novelist, neither of us is especially adept at the confessional mode; it’s possible that we take pains to avoid it. We do talk a fair amount about race—we talk a fair amount about everything, since our friendship is of the cross-country, intensive-text variety—and, when the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened, in April, we began passing back and forth articles about them. In June, we had a chance to see them in person, and to spend a few days together. We knew that the museum and memorial would ask different things of black and white visitors, and that the trip would shake us.
From 1850 until the end of the Civil War, Montgomery was the Southern port most active in slave trading—even surpassing New Orleans, where an estimated hundred and thirty-five thousand human souls were auctioned between 1804 and 1862. The city’s past is inescapable on its sleepy downtown streets, almost deserted on a humid Friday afternoon. Markers draw attention to the curb where Rosa Parks stepped onto a bus and refused to give up her seat; to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., served as a pastor from 1954 to 1960; to the First White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis lived until 1861, when the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond.
At the intersection of Commerce Street and Dexter Avenue, once known as the “romantic center” of the city, stands the Court Square Fountain, topped with a corroded statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth and cupbearer to the Olympian gods. A nearby marker explains that this is the site where “slaves of all ages were auctioned, along with land and livestock, standing in a line to be inspected.” When it was placed at the fountain, in 2002, the city councilman Tracy Larkin said that the past is often “painful and embarrassing” but that it must be studied and known.
Today there is a craft-coffee shop across the street, on the first floor of a building from 1898, which was home to the S. H. Kress & Co. department store. During a recent renovation, workers found bricks made by enslaved women, which were donated to the Equal Justice Initiative. Hip and industrial, it resembles a coffee shop that one might find in San Francisco. It seems odd for such a place to look out on a former slave market, especially given the historic connection between slavery and coffee. Yet these two spaces appear to be in deep conversation with each other. The shop’s owners, who are white, got interested in ethically sourced coffee while working for an N.G.O. in West Africa. We ordered coffee and biscuits and wondered whether the past that has made Alabama infamous could be a force for economic development, as the new memorial draws visitors to the area. Would that revival benefit its citizens equally? The name of the coffee shop, which isn’t visible from the street outside, is Prevail Union.
Between the fountain and the Alabama River, the Legacy Museum occupies a building that was once a warehouse for human chattel. Just past the entrance, a ramp slopes down to five “slave pens,” behind which ghostly holograms in nineteenth-century costume tell their stories. Visitors huddle around the pens and listen closely, as the figures speak in hushed tones. The effect is authentic—maybe because this is a building where such scenes took place, and the testimonies are those of real people. The ghostly prisoners include two children dressed in white nightshirts. “Mama!” they cry. “Mama?” And then politely, calmly, the older child, as if he knows that everything depends on his ability to hold it together, asks, “Have you seen our mother?”
The Equal Justice Initiative’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, began defending death-row inmates in Alabama thirty years ago, and, like a great legal argument, the Legacy Museum relies on both emotion and a precise accumulation of evidence. As visitors leave the ghosts in the cages, the museum painstakingly shows how slavery, after Reconstruction, was “dusted off and repurposed” in the American penal system. The words of an enslaved man named Aaron, near the entrance, seem to have prophesied a person like Stevenson: “Go to the slave auction! See humans from infancy to gray hairs sold. See human souls bartered for cash. See families that God hath joined together, separated, never more to meet in this world. Count, if you can, the groans, fathom the bitter woes, occasioned by these separations . . . . Follow out the investigation into its detail, and you will begin to learn the greatness of the sin.”
One exhibit wall holds shelves of Mason jars filled with soil from lynching sites. Each jar is labelled with the name of the victim, the date of death, and the county where the lynching took place. In a nearby alcove, a video tells the story of John Hartfield, who was hunted for ten days and critically wounded after he was accused of assaulting a white woman. He was kept alive by a white doctor until a crowd of ten thousand people could assemble to witness the spectacle of his lynching. On June 26, 1919, in Ellisville, Mississippi, after stump speeches were delivered, a jubilant crowd, amid food vendors selling refreshments, watched as a group of white men hanged Hartfield from a gum tree and riddled his body with two thousand bullets. The shots severed the rope, Hartfield’s body fell to the ground, and his corpse was immediately burned. Spectators passed around his severed fingers and bought postcard souvenirs for twenty cents.
At the Legacy Museum, in Montgomery, Mason jars display soil from lynching sites. Each is labelled with the name of the victim, the date of death, and the county where the lynching took place.
Photograph by Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post / Getty
The next scene in the video shows Vanzetta Penn McPherson, a retired Alabama district judge, and Anthony Ray Hinton, an Alabamian who was exonerated after thirty years on death row, carefully filling a Mason jar marked “John Temple, Montgomery, AL, September 30, 1919.” At one point, McPherson abruptly puts down her shovel and asks Hinton to pray with her: “We pause so very briefly this morning to remember a man who we did not know, but, in so many ways, who we do know. We pray that the sacrifices he so involuntarily made . . . strengthen us, edify us, and help us to move forward in a way that will prevent this from ever occurring again.”
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a fifteen-minute walk southwest from the museum. On the way there we saw our first Montgomery traffic: a funeral cortège headed in the opposite direction. Our initial view of the memorial was from the intersection of Clayton and Holcombe streets, on its north side, from where the open-air steel structure came suddenly into view behind the peeling sign for F & D Auto Repair. At the top of a hill, we could see the square pavilion of the memorial, its eight hundred and sixteen steel slabs—each one representing a county where a lynching occurred—hanging from the ceiling at even intervals.
The first drops of a summer storm were falling on the gravel path that winds up to the memorial. The mother of a crying baby in a stroller gestured to her older children to get moving. “Walk around, soak it in,” she said. The children, looking dubious, hurried under the overhang, to avoid getting soaked themselves. The center of the memorial is a grassy courtyard, open to the sky, and the sky is big in Montgomery, where the tallest building stands twenty-two stories. The rain got heavier fast. Water flooded the gravel path, and ran off the steel slabs marked with the county names. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented four thousand and seventy-five lynchings in twelve states between 1877 and 1950. This death toll includes eight hundred more murders than scholars had previously counted.
Among the first names that a visitor might see are those of the three men on the monument for Shelby County, Tennessee: Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Stewart. They operated a successful grocery store in Memphis that bested a white business. Their gruesome murders, on March 9, 1892, scarred their friend Ida B. Wells, who spent the rest of her life speaking out and writing the truth about lynching.
Nearly two decades later, in Elaine, Arkansas, a white mob killed two hundred and thirty-seven black men, women, and children in two days. It was the deadliest of approximately twenty five massacres during the summer and early fall of 1919, a period known as the Red Summer. African-American soldiers who had fought for their country in the First World War returned home with high hopes for the recognition of their military service and their humanity. As W. E. B. DuBois wrote in “Returning Soldiers,” an editorial published in The Crisis, in 1919, “We are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land . . . . We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.” Southern whites, fearful of black veterans’ growing assertiveness, lynched them in their military uniforms.
The designation “Unknown” memorializes many victims of racial terror. A gentle stream of water runs down a wide wall, on the lower level of the memorial, with a statement that promises to honor those souls, too.
We think of racial violence in the South as male violence—men in white hoods—but the memorial makes the role of Southern women explicit. As Ida B. Wells wrote in “Southern Horrors,” “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
Along the side walls of the memorial, placards describe other threadbare justifications:
Warren Powell, fourteen, was lynched in East Point, Georgia, in 1889, for “frightening” a white girl.
Robert Morton was lynched in Rockfield, Kentucky, in 1897, for writing a note to a white woman.
Henry Patterson was lynched in Labelle, Florida, in 1926, for asking a white woman for a drink of water.
My paternal grandmother was born in Greeneville, Tennessee, in 1907. There’s a sentence she reputedly said, though never in my presence. It was something my mother repeated when she was angry with her mother-in-law, something my grandmother had said in the late sixties, soon after my parents met.
“We always treated our negras well.”
“Negra” is what I focussed on, when my mother repeated it; I’d never heard that word before, and it shocked me. It went with other anachronistic peculiarities of my grandmother, like her pink linen suits, with matching low-heeled pumps, and her habit of ordering milk with dinner in restaurants. She would ask the waiter whether milk came with the meal, and, when it turned out that it didn’t, she would claim not to want it. This mortified everyone, although it shouldn’t have; she came of age during the Depression. Similarly, it was the antique slur in her sentence that caught my attention, rather than the word that came just before it: our. How did it take me until 2017 to remember that, and understand what it meant?
I called my father, and he sounded surprised that I had to ask. “Yes,” he said. “Her family owned slaves right up until the Civil War.”
The rain moved on, and the sun went in and out of gray clouds. The steel slabs threw ovoid shadows onto the wooden floor—shadows with a softer and more human shape than their steel counterparts. I Googled the county where my grandmother is buried, next to her husband and her parents. We had been there in 2005, for her memorial, driving through green Kentucky horse country, noting Confederate flags from the windows of the rental car. There was one ragged, nearly translucent specimen, like something from a Hollywood movie about the South. The cemetery is in Breckinridge County, and so that was the region I looked for at the memorial. I finally stopped to ask a young man in an Equal Justice Initiative T-shirt; as soon as I asked the question, though, I looked up—we were standing underneath it. There were three names, representing the lynchings in Breckinridge County that the Initiative has been able to document:
“You found it,” Allyson said.
I said that I’d kind of been hoping I wouldn’t find it—that Breckinridge might be the sole Southern county in which there had been no lynchings.
Allyson nodded. “I’ve been afraid that I would find my family’s name,” she said.
As a historian, I am embarrassed that I know so little about my family history. Once, at Stanford, I struck up a conversation with a woman who was sitting near me at a lecture. We discovered that our families were both from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I gave her my great-grandfather’s last name, and she told me more about my mother’s side of the family than I had ever known. “You had a great-aunt Beulah, a great-aunt Edna . . . . Those women were college-educated. They were ahead of their time,” she said. I was growing uncomfortable; I didn’t recognize those names. But when she mentioned my great-aunt Zenobia and her funeral home, I knew she was correct. Aunt Zenobia is a legend in my family. Beloved by her community, she was an independent-business owner and a generous church benefactor at a time when it was rare for a woman to hold such leadership positions. Named “mortician of the year” in the nineteen-seventies, she began her career by combing hair, applying makeup, and painstakingly preparing the bodies of the deceased in their homes.
At the lynching memorial, I looked for Orleans Parish, and held my breath. The monument hangs high from the ceiling, and sunlight obscured my view. Through squinted eyes, I didn’t see any familiar names on the long list, but I didn’t feel relieved. I was surrounded by memorials for thousands of souls—they were all “my people,” any of whom could have been “kin,” as my grandmother would have said. I can only wonder about the condition of some of the bodies Aunt Zenobia worked on with such care at her embalming table.
I grew up in the North, in New Jersey, and I have always thought of myself as lucky. But it wasn’t luck—it was my parents’ constant efforts to shelter me from the cruelties of racism. I knew that my grandparents, parents, and aunts and uncles, and even my older brother and sisters, had endured racial traumas. This was a fact of life for most African-Americans in the Jim Crow South and in the hyper-segregated cities and suburbs of the North.
According to officials and security guards at the memorial, the residents of Montgomery are not visiting the memorial or museum. “I’ve seen more Europeans than Montgomerians,” one security guard said. One woman explained that she has been very busy but plans to go as soon as things settle down. An Uber driver rifled through the papers tucked into her car’s sun visor to show us that she bought a ticket. An elderly man, whom we started chatting with outside our hotel, told us that he grew up in Montgomery in the fifties, when impoverished black families still relied on kerosene to light their homes. He suggested that it would be “dangerous” for African-Americans to relive the past. A congregant at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church said that she attended the events leading up to the opening but has not been back.
It’s still early. Perhaps locals would rather wait for the tourists to leave so that they can have time and space for quiet reflection. Some, though, insist that they have “moved on” and do not want to be reminded of these atrocities.
A man stopped us in front of the Dexter Avenue Church, because we looked like tourists. It turned out that he had been to the memorial. “I didn’t know those people,” he explained. Then he hesitated. “But just think of all of those people you didn’t get to know.”