I visited The Legacy Museum, if not the first week, then the second week that it opened. The Legacy Museum was created by the Equal Justice Initiative and is located in Montgomery, Alabama. It’s a few blocks away from The National Memorial for Peace and Justice about a 15-minute or so walk and obviously a shorter distance driving.
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The ticket office and all of that is outside so when you enter it’s literally the start of The Legacy Museum. There’s a map of Montgomery from back in the time of slavery. And on this map, there’s a “you are here” kind of thing, showing where The Legacy Museum currently stands.
Not too far from that point, there are businesses on the map that were involved in the slave trade some of which were importers of slaves. And then you also had banks and insurance companies that helped to finance the slave trade. It was interesting that Lehman Brothers had an office in the city, not that far from where The Legacy Museum now stands, and they were involved in financing slavery.
Just across the street sort of diagonally from The Legacy Museum, there’s a little park that was a prominent slave auction market. On the other block and down the street, there’s a wharf leading to it is a sort of promenade with shops and such. A dock existed at this location in the past as well where boats would come in with enslaved people as cargo as well as other goods.
Not too far away, within walking distance, there was a train station that was used to bring slave traders and other people involved in the slave trade into the city. It was also used to transport slaves over long distances and to other parts of the South. There were a few slave auction markets as well as several buildings used to hold slaves until auction. Actually, on the very site of The Legacy Museum, was a building used to warehouse enslaved people.
It’s interesting that you walk down the street in the present and it’s like this place here was a slave auction. That place was the office of a business that insured ships that were involved in the slave trade. And right there on Commerce Street, which leads out to the river were the wharf and train depot used to transport slaves.
It’s like within five blocks, very close to where The Legacy Museum is, and on the site where you’d be standing there was all of this stuff related to the slave trade going on. It’s just crazy to imagine that you can be walking in the footsteps of these unfortunate people. You can be sitting outside of a cafe or some building and chances are that at some point that spot was involved in the slave trade.
Something else that I found interesting as in the case of Lehman Brothers is that you have a lot of these companies that are still around now which have been in existence for years but are so clean and sanitized now. They’re now these paragons of commerce if not virtue with storied histories. But, then you get down to it and you find out that not that long ago they were very much involved in the slave trade. They’ve been given the opportunity to clean up their image and their true histories are now a somewhat quietly kept secret.
The Legacy Museum is split into four parts or themes that chart the history of the systematic oppression of Black people. The first section is kidnapped, which relates to slavery. The second is terrorized which relates to lynching. The third, which is segregated relates to Jim Crow. And the fourth, which is the most modern relates to mass incarceration.
When you enter the museum, there’s a mixture of your typical wall diagrams and murals. There are also some dramatizations of people from the past in a media display where you walk up to these different windows. Well not windows actually, they’re more like cells or dungeons. When you approach, actors dressed up as the ghosts of slaves begin telling their stories and talk about their experiences.
The kidnapped section also includes an exhibit about the slave auction. It features large reproductions of advertisements for slave auctions and rewards for runaways. The thing that I found strange was that the wording of the slave auction ads described individuals and groups of people as you would describe goods for sale on eBay or Craigslist.
On the one hand, you have these ads that completely dehumanize these people by advertising them for sale. Which is ridiculous in its own sense. But, they go even further as to describe these people as you would livestock. It’s as if you were buying a cow or a chicken and detailing the condition of its teeth, age, ability to reproduce, etc. Pretty much what you would expect to get for your money is how you’d be describing a human being.
But, then on the flip side of that, you have this other side of the display that shows the human loss and suffering. Being the person sold and having your family torn away from you. Being a man or woman having your husband or wife sold away. Being a parent and having your children sold away or being a child and experiencing being torn away from your mother or father.
It’s an interesting way of explaining the structure of slavery.
On one side there’s the focus on the economics that would allow you to strip away a human being’s humanity. And then on the other side of it, you have these human beings talking about the experience of having their humanity stripped away. I thought this was one of the most powerful parts of the museum.
There’s a large curved wall and on that wall hangs signs from the Jim Crow period. It provides a physical representation of the many ways Black people were banned or limited from businesses and the use of facilities. There are the Whites-only and Blacks-only water fountain signs that we’ve all seen in pictures. But, there are also signs about businesses not serving Black people and parks that didn’t allow Black people. It’s one thing to see those signs in a textbook or a history book. It’s something completely different to see a physical sign like that in person and know that it’s not just something in the history books. To see a sign like that in person made the concept of Jim Crow that much more real.
There are several media displays but the audio was a little bit difficult to hear because there are different multimedia displays playing out loud throughout the museum. While trying to listen to the audio from the sign exhibit, there was also audio from other areas bleeding in so I couldn’t really make out what was being said. It’s more like an added benefit because you don’t actually miss a lot by not being able to hear the audio. The signs pretty much speak for themselves as you can read them so it’s not a great loss.
On the other side of the wall, there were signs providing a sampling of Jim Crow-type laws. These signs showed things that you weren’t allowed to do like fraternizing between Black and White people. I wondered about what was going on in Montgomery where you’d need a law to prohibit Black and White people from playing cards, dominoes, checkers, billiards and whatnot with each other. Because these are basic games and hang out things what would be the big deal if they wanted to play? Why should there be a law against that?
But, I guess that was part of the social code. The idea of having this system where one set of people are supposed to be limited from obtaining resources and visiting or using certain facilities and businesses. And these other people are supposed to have access as a part of their privilege. If we then have these people hanging out together it defeats the purpose and undermines the system. Seeing these walls exhibiting these signs was still weird but that’s partially from not being from that time period.
There’s a timeline of slavery’s transformation to convict leasing, black codes, lynching, and Jim Crow segregation. Essentially it’s like a timeline that moves you through The Legacy Museum. So you start out with slavery, the capture and enslavement of these people from Africa, their experiences once they get to America on through Emancipation, convict leasing, into the present and mass incarceration. It shows how the end of one period of injustice would then give way to a reformation of sorts and a new era of continued subjugation of Black people.
So essentially, what you have is the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the criminal justice system’s continued preservation of systematic racial inequality throughout the timeline. It touches on how racial terror was used to racialize criminality. And Nixon’s law and order campaign and the later launch of the war on drugs were basically just a ploy to criminalize Black people.
There’s a juxtaposition of lynching in the past with the death penalty in the present. Particularly in Texas, which I believe has if not the most people on death row, the most executions. There’s also the startling growth of incarceration between 1972 to 2017. For example, if you’ve seen 13th, the documentary by Ava DuVernay, it also touches on the same topic. But, this goes about explaining the transition through those periods in a slightly different way.
Something that I found interesting is that there’s a section of The Legacy Museum that features letters from incarcerated people some of which are minors. The letters are very heart-breaking. Let’s be clear, when people commit crimes, they should be punished. But, to house a juvenile offender with adults or to convict the juvenile in their teens or early 20s, or even their tweens, and then incarcerate them well into their 40s and 50s is unreasonable. People that commit crimes should be held accountable for their actions, but there should also be a heavy focus on rehabilitation.
For example, they should have to learn trades. I think it’s fine if they can take classes and educate themselves. I’ve read that people who are less educated let’s say not having graduated from high school or not having a GED have higher rates of incarceration. There’s what’s referred to as the prison pipeline where kids who are underperforming around the third and fourth grade are at greater risk of being incarcerated as adults. That’s not to say that their imprisonment is guaranteed. But, educating kids gives them more options as they get older and decreases the probability of them becoming involved in criminal activity and ending up in prison. Having limited access to resources and opportunities as youths might have contributed to them ending up in prison.
As a result, I don’t see the harm in educating them while in prison and having that be part of their rehabilitation. It would make it easier for them to transition back into society and by all means, they should be productive. Prison shouldn’t just be a free for all or an opportunity to kick your feet up and relax. So they can be made to grow their own food and help to maintain the prison. But, regular companies and the corrections companies shouldn’t be able to profit from their labor.
That would be like convict leasing in the past and the present where you have some prisons where convicts produce goods that are then sold to the general public. I don’t agree with this practice because it can become a slippery slope, where you leave open the possibility that companies and the prisons themselves might take advantage and begin funneling more people into prison.
A good point that’s made is that court-ordered executions are essentially a modern-day replacement for lynchings.
It’s been proven that sentencing tends to be a lot harsher for Black people and Black people are disproportionately condemned to die. That’s not to say that White people don’t end up on Death Row. But, the rates at which Black versus White people are condemned to die differ and the circumstances under which they are condemned differ. You can have a Black and White person that commit similar crimes and through various machinations, the Black person will stand a greater chance of possibly facing the death penalty versus a White person.
Now granted, the details may vary. But, there is something to be said for the fact that the disproportion even exists. Not to mention that arrest rates, conviction rates, and the sentences that people receive are disproportionate not just in death penalty cases, but overall.
I drove to Montgomery from Atlanta and only spent the day in town but the experience was definitely worth it. When you purchase your ticket, you have the option to get a combo ticket that grants you admission to both The Legacy Museum and The Memorial for Peace and Justice which are about a 15 to 20-minute walk apart. You can go to the Memorial at any time on the day for which you purchase your ticket but the Museum operates on timed entry. Tickets can be purchased online but I’d recommend buying the tickets when you arrive due to the timed entry aspect.
I took my time and frequently stopped to jot down notes while walking through The Legacy Museum. There’s a lot of info but it took me about two hours to see the entire museum. Unfortunately and understandably, the museum doesn’t allow photos or videos. They also prefer that you don’t bring bags or backpacks into the building.
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