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Legacy Museum offers opportunity for Alabamians to reckon with racist past

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Caroline Vincent/APR
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Ocean waves crash and wood boards creak as a staggering number appears on screen: approximately 12 million Black men, women and children were kidnapped from Africa and brought across the Atlantic Ocean to be enslaved in the Americas. Nearly 2 million people didn’t survive the journey.

This video presentation sets the stage for a new series of exhibits in the newly expanded Legacy Museum in Montgomery. The museum is owned and operated by the Equal Justice Initiative, the same group that built the nation’s only lynching memorial.

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Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Other than the museum and memorial, the organization is known for providing legal aid to those wrongfully convicted or given unjust sentences by the legal system.

“I’d be lying if I said when I started out I said, ‘Yeah one year we’re going to build a museum,'” he said. “I don’t think that was actually a priority for me until I began to see our courts retreating from the kind of commitment to ending racial discrimination that I think we need to see.”

Stevenson’s work in the legal system motivated him to tell the story of Black Americans in a more abrasive way than what is normally found in textbooks. The new museum exhibit is the first of its kind. It looks at the direct impact slavery has on Black Americans through the use of first-person narrative. Starting with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the exhibit follows the line drawn from slavery to Reconstruction and the prominence of lynchings, to segregation in the Jim Crow south, to modern-day mass incarceration. Stevenson said this narrative timeline proves the museum's mission statement, which is the history of slavery in America shapes the inequality of Black Americans today.

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The Equal Justice Initiative opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018.

“I wanted to identify narrative texts written by enslaved people that would give people more intimate awareness of the cruelty of slavery, the harm, the pain, the suffering that it generated,” he said. “We carry that throughout the museum, so that’s what shapes our presentation on lynching and segregation and these contemporary issues of over-incarcerations.”

The stories are shared first-hand by slaves behind bars and prisoners through the phone. Sometimes they ask for help. Others just want someone to lend an ear. Visitors are forced to experience these stories on a much more personal level, looking people in the eyes while hearing of the conditions in which they’re living.

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Dr. Robin Boylorn is a professor of interpersonal and intercultural communications at the University of Alabama. She said the use of narrative makes the experience more personal.

“I think that one of the most powerful things that narrative research offers for representation of marginalized experiences is the opportunity for those perspectives and experiences to be represented and humanized," she said. “I think that the opportunity to have stories that have been lost, stories that have been muted, stories that have been silenced or ignored, amplified and magnified is one of the greatest benefits of narrative research.”

But just because the information is being presented in a new way, doesn’t mean the stories haven’t been around for some time. Boylorn said the majority of people maybe just haven’t heard them yet.

“One of the reasons that it seems like these things don’t exist in popular culture or the wider imagination is because it makes people uncomfortable and we like to think ourselves way more evolved than we actually are,” she said. “I think that one of the goals of places like the Legacy Museum is to take some of the information that’s already been gathered, some of the things that scholars and historians already know, but make it available to and accessible to the wider public.”

Alabamians are used to sights and museums dedicated to Civil Rights history, but this one is meant to stand out from the rest. There aren’t just mugshots of activists from the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There are audio messages of those activists giving first-hand accounts of the fight for equal rights under the oppression of Jim Crow. And it’s not just from African Americans. There are quotes from several prominent white leaders of the time voicing their opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

Lee Sentell is the director of tourism for the state of Alabama. He said visitors to the Legacy Museum will experience something different than what they are used to.

“It’s not an education; I think it’s a confrontation of what African-Americans, particularly the early slave people, had to endure to get here and what they experienced and the discriminations against them,” he said. “I think it’s good that people are confronted with the topics that are described in graphic detail inside the new Legacy Museum because it’s a subject of how we treat our fellow man."

Museum organizers say it looks at history with a modern lens, refusing to let the hardships of Black Americans stay a thing of the past. Each stage builds upon the last, providing a clear timeline of how slavery, mass incarceration, and everything in between are connected.

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“Sometimes it begins to sound like a three-day carnival. On day one Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on a bus, on day two Dr. King lead a march on Washington, and on day three we passed all of these laws and racism was over,” Stevenson said, “and that’s not an accurate narrative.”

But learning and acknowledging is just the first step. Sentell said there is still plenty of work to be done before the lessons of the exhibit truly take hold.

“This is not a subject that ended in 1965 or 1865. It’s a subject where we have to keep working on our promise that all men are created equal,” he said.

By confronting visitors with detailed, truthful accounts, Stevenson and the EJI hope that the narrative of Black Americans can be changed, specifically within the justice system.

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“I really do believe that if we commit to truth and justice, we can get to a kind of equality, a kind of justice, a kind of reliability, a kind of fairness that we haven’t experienced yet,” Stevenson said. “We won’t accept these disparities based on race; we won’t accept people being sentenced unfairly because of their race; we won’t tolerate the wrongful convictions that disproportionately impact people of color.”

And if those changes can come from the first capital of the Confederacy, Stevenson said there is no reason for it to not be embraced throughout the rest of the country.

“If we can change our relationship to this narrative in Montgomery, in Alabama, if we can lift up the possibility of true reconciliation, true reckoning with this history, there’s not another state in the country that can say, ‘Well they can do that in Alabama, but we can’t do that where we are,’” Stevenson said.

The experience of the museum is meant to go beyond educating or enlightening. It’s about not only coming face-to-face with the reality of the impact slavery has had on the country, but also recognizing that changes need to be made to overcome those effects.

“This kind of change is hard. It goes against the instinct of our country to trust Black people. It goes against the compass of this country to see Black folk as human and equal, and so we’re starting with a deficit,” Boylorn said. “I do think that there is a movement toward acknowledging and rectifying the injustices that have been happening, but there’s always so much resistance.”

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Boylorn said It’s because of that deficit, it’s important for white people in particular to visit the museum.

“When I think about who has been protected from these stories, who’s been protected from these realities and the ways in which they still don’t want to know, it’s a white privilege in many ways to not know and to not deal with, to not reckon, to ignore, to pretend. That’s not a privilege people of color have, and Black people in this country don’t get to not know. It’s dangerous to not know.” Boylorn said. “I think it’s an important story to tell and to wrestle with and reckon with in all of the ways that we do. I think it’ll be a good thing.”

A note of disclosure: The author of this article is a monthly giver to the Equal Justice Initiative.

Caroline Vincent is a digital producer for Alabama Public Radio.
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