Oct 17, 2021 – Legacy

According to Dictionary.com, the noun Leg.a.cy [leg-uh-see] has three meanings, the second of which is “anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor”.

Over three years ago, Vivian and I began living in an RV and traveling throughout the United States. As the case with all RV travelers, our motives are many. But above all, what began as a casual sideline interest and then quickly evolved into the driving force behind our itineraries is learning the history of the United States. As we languished through the south, our curiosity for all stories that comprise American History brought us to Montgomery, Alabama. It is here where America’s darkest legacy was brought to the forefront of our consciousness through the most enlightening visual exhibition we have ever seen. It stopped us in our tracks causing us to reflect and dig deeper into the meaning of ‘Legacy’. By sharing our travel experiences, we also wish to share our learning experiences, and like us, you may learn and gain insight into our country’s legacies.

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is the creation of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal services organization led by attorney Bryan Stevenson, also the author of ‘Just Mercy’. The museum opened in 2018 as part of the National Memorial of Peace and Justice.

The Legacy Museum is filled with dramatic and passionate displays of photographs, 2-D and 3-D art, videos, and written words, accompanied by audio-recorded narratives, and music. Unfortunately for me, photography was not allowed in the Legacy Museum. To describe in words our emotions and thoughts as we examined one exhibit after another is impossible for me without representing them with photographs.

A building erected on a site where enslaved Black people were warehoused and forced to labor, became the new Legacy Museum opened in September 2021.

Instead, I found some photographs on the internet from news reports of the opening of the Legacy Museum that I will use here. Plus, I was allowed to photograph within the National Memorial of Peace and Justice, which was toured in partnership with the Legacy Museum. With that, please take the time to read while viewing each photograph below.

The museum is divided up into several large rooms that take you through time beginning with the kidnapping of Africans and slave trading ships to North America. You are brought face-to-face with the domestic slave trade with replicas of slave pens and first-person accounts from enslaved people narrating the sights and sounds of the slave trade. As you move along, you become overwhelmed with the written words on display, reproductions of ads and flyers that serve as firsthand accounts of slave trading and then later lynchings.

This display, created by one artist, was a visceral experience for me, I could not keep from crying. The room was awashed in blue light, giving the sense of being underwater. A play on light appeared like water moving across the ocean floor where heads of tormented people from slave ships populate the ocean floor.
According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (between 1525 and 1866, or entire history of the slave trade in the New World), 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage to North America, Caribbean, and South America. Of those, about 388,000 were shipped directly to North America.
Well over 90 percent of enslaved Africans were imported into the Caribbean and South America. Only about 6 percent of African captives were sent directly to British North America. Yet by 1825, the US population included about one quarter of the people of African descent in the New World.
Though the US Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, domestic slave trade flourished. The slave population in the US nearly tripled over the next 50 years, greatly surpassed in volume the Atlantic Slave Trade to North America.
Slavery in the US was distinctive in the near balance of the sexes and the ability of the slave population to increase its numbers by natural reproduction. Unlike any other slave society, the US had a high and sustained natural increase in the slave population for more than 150 years.
From the time of the Civil War and for several decades thereafter, African Americans placed want ads in newspapers in search of family members that had been separated from them either through war, slavery or emancipation. At the beginning, many were living their lives as fugitives or were recently freed. Consequently, ads were placed knowing well the dangers of reprisal from (previous) owners.
Walls filled with collages of enlarged reprints of want ads are on display in the Legacy Museum.
The racial terrorism of the Jim Crow laws is sharply rendered in photographs and in written firsthand descriptions throughout the museum. It is overwhelming to take it all in.

One of the last rooms in the museum is a very large one where several displays of incarcerated individuals on pre-recorded video screens displayed as a prison visitation booth. You can choose any one of the booths where an incarcerated individual awaits you. Pick up a phone provided at the booth and listen to the inmate’s story.

The annual rate of incarceration of black men is 3 to 10.5 times greater than white men. In 2014, 3% of all black men were serving at least one year of prison. In 2019, the imprisonment rate for black women was over 1.7 times the rate of imprisonment for white women.
During the Jim Crow era, state legislatures passed “Black Codes” which created new criminal offenses such as “vagrancy” and “loitering”, leading to the mass arrest and incarceration of Black people.
Convict leasing, the practice of selling the labor of state and local prisoners to private interests became common place. Black prisoners were rare during the slavery era, thus the solution became the criminalization of the free Black population. The most common fate facing Black convicts was to be sold into forced labor for the profit of the state.
It was a short walk from the Legacy Museum to the National Memorial of Peace and Justice in downtown Montgomery. Along the way, we stopped to look at the beautiful fountain adorned with a statue of Hebe, the Greek Goddess of eternal youth. The fountain was built in 1885 on top of an artesian well. The surrounding area was once the location for Montgomery’s busy slave trade and near the well, slaves were auctioned to the highest bidders.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was also created by the EJI and opened in 2018 as a monument to commemorate the thousands of African Americans who were lynched during the American era of racial terrorism. After viewing the Legacy Museum, we took a short walk over to the memorial and once again encountered a visceral display of one of America’s most violent histories.

As the United States Holocaust Memorial serves as a deliberate act of remembrance so that we may seek to learn how to prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice strikes out to do the same with a commemoration of the atrocities inflicted on African Americans during decades of racial terrorism.” EJI
The memorial is 6 acres of land. The structure suspends 800 Corten steel monuments each representing a county where racial terror lynchings took place. Each one is engraved with the names of the victims and the date of death.
Duplicates of each monument lie in the memory bank outside the main structure. Corresponding counties are invited to claim their monument and place it as a marker in their own community. It is my understanding that EJI partnered with the Alachua County Community Remembrance Project to dedicate a historical marker in memory of nine documented victims of lynching in Newberry, Florida. The nine are listed on the monument in the photo above this one.

Following the Civil War and the passing of the 13th and 14th Amendments, white backlash to re-impose white dominance through violent repression in the south escalated in the face of Black political and economic competition created by emancipation and voting rights. Court rulings were also part of the backlash as in 1876, the Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment prohibits a State from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; but this adds nothing to the rights of one citizen as against another. Meaning simply – African Americans in the South were left of the mercy of white terrorists if those terrorists were acting as private citizens. Later, it ruled that upholding racial segregation was fully consistent with the 14th Amendment under the guise of “separate but equal”.

EJI documented 4084 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950, and 300 other lynchings in other states. Of these documented lynchings, the overwhelming majority took place on sites that remain unmarked and unrecognized.
In their research, EJI distinguished racial terror lynchings from hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial process or that were committed against non-minorities without the threat of terror, and also from racial violence and hate crimes that were prosecuted as criminal acts (these were rare).
Documented terror lynchings are considered acts of terrorism because these murders were carried out with impunity, sometimes in broad daylight, often on a courthouse lawn. Perpetrators were never held accountable and some public spectacle lynchings were attended by entire white community and conducted as a celebratory acts of racial control and domination.
Faced with the constant threat of harm, almost 6 million Black Americans fled the South between 1910 to 1970. Many left behind homes, families and jobs after a lynching or near lynching rendering home too unsafe a place to stay.
In Florida, Alachua and Suwannee Counties are among the top 10 counties having the most lynchings from 1877-1950. By 1920, Florida had the highest lynching rate relative to its population.
Although the most active era of racial terror lynchings was between 1877 and 1950, racially motivated violence continued after 1950, largely targeting early movement leaders and Black people challenging segregation laws. Twenty four names are represented on this wall of men and women who were lynched in the 1950s.

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