Reflections on a visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum
by Brittany Zorn, IRT ’13, Arts & Sciences Specialist, IRT and
Morgan Kinney, Associate Director, Center for Civic Leadership,
“Can you help me find my child?” A desperate voice came from behind bars in a dark hallway. I snapped my head in the direction of the voice and locked eyes with the hologram of a Black mother, speaking directly to me, triggered by my stepping into the hallway. She looked ghostly, depicted in shades of brown and gray, but the sense of urgency in her human voice kept me keyed in for the duration of her plea. “They took my children,” she continued to describe them and ask if I had seen any kids. Turning my wide eyes to my friend, Brittany, further down the hallway, I saw that she was trapped in a similarly gut-wrenching scene and that the whole hall was an immersive depiction of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which once took place, we were informed, on the very ground we were standing on. I then realized the Legacy Museum was not going to be a typical educational experience.
Morgan first pitched the idea of a cross-country road trip to me casually last summer. The thought of piling into Morgan’s Civic with her dog and driving from my home in Haverhill to her home in Houston over the winter holiday break was… actually totally thrilling. Morgan and I met in the first semester of our master’s program for Student Development in Higher Education at the University of Maine (IRT consortium school shout out!) in the fall of 2014. By the time we earned our degrees two years later, we forged a strong friendship, which withstood our respective post-grad moves. I returned to work at the IRT as the Arts & Sciences Programs Specialist and Morgan accepted a job in Houston, TX at Rice University (another IRT consortium school shoutout!) in their Center for Civic Leadership, prompting her first move outside her home state of Maine.
Admittedly, I had little stake in our road trip itinerary; I was mostly along for the ride, making Morgan’s proposal to stop to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, an easy sell. I had read about the newly established lynching memorial when it was built in 2018 and it seemed a rare opportunity-as someone who lives and works in New England- to get to visit. The memorial itself was an incredibly impactful, poignant, and sobering experience, much more so than either of us could have anticipated as two young White women born and raised in the North East.
All too often- and certainly throughout our respective 18 years of public schooling- the historical narrative of US racism has been reduced to the naming of a few decades or a few states or a few people. However, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice makes clear that American racism has been much more pervasive than the typical American history curriculum would suggest. The Memorial offers a physical representation of the thousands of lynchings that happened all over the US and for an extensive period of time- some of the most recent occurrences dating well into the early and mid-1900s, and implicating states as far north as New York and as far west as California. We walked through the somber courtyard of hanging metal boxes, eerily reminiscent of coffins, in almost total silence, as we absorbed the weight of so, so many lives-over 4,400 people, primarily black men- taken in the name of racism and white supremacy by way of lynching. The legacy of violence we bore witness to sat unsettled inside us against so much of what we thought we knew what we had been taught in school and in culture- about lynching in America, and slavery, and racism more broadly.
This brings us back to the dark hallway and startling cries of Black folk who had been stolen and brought to the US by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, where it became clear the EJI was not done showing us difficult truths about America’s history with racism. The initial exhibit that housed these holograms also included historical maps of Montgomery’s slave trade and first-hand accounts from enslaved Africans. On the very spot where we stood had been a barn where Black folks were chained until it was time to be dragged to the sellers block down the street. We learned from an instructional video mounted on the wall that often cattle and enslaved humans were kept in the same stall. The hologram faced us and continued – children were often ripped from the arms of their parents, while the adults were sorted according to appearance and assigned to a market to be sold. First-hand slave narratives written on the walls brought the violence and dehumanization of slavery to painstaking life from the very first exhibit.
The rest of the museum wove seamlessly through the end of the slave trade, the much-delayed actual freeing of the enslaved people across the South, into and swiftly back out of Reconstruction, the horrific Jim Crow era of lynchings we had seen commemorated earlier in the day, and finally to those years we as white educators so love to highlight: The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Only instead of allowing us to breathe a sigh of relief and distance ourselves comfortably from the haunting images of the lynching memorial, it pressed on past the faux finish line of the Voting Rights Act and into the carefully constructed system of mass incarceration of Black Americans. The final hallway was lined on one side with mock prison visitation booths from which a person behind bars told you about their circumstances through the phone: some awaiting trial and trapped by extraordinarily cost-prohibitive bail, mothers once again separated from their children, and the all-too-frequent enforcement of minimum sentencing drug laws reinforcing vicious cycles of generational poverty.
On the other side of the hall, a series of questions lined the exit back to the lobby: “How do we improve police and community relations and end unnecessary police violence?,” “Why would states prohibit interracial romance or marriage?,” “How do we eliminate the presumption of guilt assigned to black children?” The questions were numerous and ranged from challenging the provision of slavery as a means of punishment for crime in the 13th amendment, to thought provoking questions about the de facto segregation remaining in many schools throughout the country.
Moving past the final questions and out to the lobby, we were appreciative that our post-secondary education and chosen career path had prompted a fair bit of critical reflection. We would not have found ourselves processing the most unapologetic and jarring U.S. history lesson we had ever received had we not met in our Master’s program a few years earlier. We named our gratitude for having studied the formation of racial identity side by side, critiqued the white-washed nature of our student development theory textbooks together, and that we had both developed the self-awareness necessary to spend the next nine hours of driving in and out of productive dialogue and continued unlearning of dominant narratives- rather than in the shock and despair either one of us easily could have found ourselves in say 8 or 10 years prior. Which begged the questions: What if we hadn’t? And how many of our fellow white Americans- educators, leaders, policymakers- haven’t done such reflection or been confronted with such painful racial truths?
Growing up as white girls in rural New England, it was easy to understand racism and the “ancient” history of lynching and segregation as Southern problems. Racism was still an issue “down there,” but what impact could that have on us enlightened Northerners? The Union won the Civil War. But wasn’t that just a disagreement over something called “states’ rights” anyway? While we had already unlearned a fair amount of racial biases, both subtle and overt, that were inherent in our 18 years of public education, we were still struck by how many gaps were filled in by the Legacy Museum and the lynching memorial. And if we were so shaken by this how would we feel if we hadn’t started the long journey of replacing the biases instilled by society with anti-racism? It was easy to imagine, actually Distraught. Defensive. Angry. Unbelieving. Overwhelming guilt.
As we continued to unpack the exhibits of the museum and how our experience of it was shaped by each of our respective intersecting identities and experiences, we continually came back to the same conclusion: Protection from the disturbing, pervasive nature of White violence against Black bodies both past and present fuels White fragility and traps all of us in recurring cycles of segregation and distrust. We lamented how many opportunities there had been in our youth and schooling, and even now in our professional lives, to confront America’s legacy of White supremacy and Black subjugation.
It would be easy for us to remain angry at “the system” for not doing a better job at educating us about our past. We could, from our newly informed position, comfortably point fingers outward at the “true culprits” of White supremacy. But in the wake of the summer of racial reckoning, we have just experienced in this country, we have been confronted with the fact that more is required of us than simply naming racism and unlearning the sanitized history we’ve been fed. We have started to ask ourselves what more we can do to become truly anti-racist.
After all, we now find ourselves in positions to influence the culture and pedagogies of our departments/institutions and the hearts and minds of colleagues and students. And in the wake of widespread protests for racial justice, it seems more prudent than ever that we ask ourselves how we can truly be allies to our Black and Brown colleagues, friends, students, and fellow citizens. Leaving the Legacy Museum on that cool January evening earlier this year, we were certainly struck by how little we really understood about America’s racist history, how insulated our white privilege kept us from the trauma we have inflicted on Black Americans, the truth of our country’s pain and violence. At that time, this single moment of awakening felt significant, felt like enough for the time being, but if recent events have shown us anything it is that this isolated experience at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery is not nearly enough.
Thankfully for us, the current political moment in the US has brought the abundance of resources to the surface and are now more readily sought after for white allyship to the anti-racist/BLM movement. Webcasts, fireside chats, teatime discussions, panels of experts, webinars, reading lists, resource caches, names of black scholars, authors, leaders, activists, and thinkers, are suddenly saturating our newsfeeds and it seems there is no shortage of ways to contribute to the fight for racial justice and against anti-blackness. Nonetheless, it can be a daunting task to figure out where it is best to start. Even though in some ways we are not new to this interrogation of our whiteness and what role we can therefore play in dismantling white supremacy, we are constant students. If our visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum taught us anything, it’s that the most important thing we can do as White educators and racial justice warriors is to first, name racism, and second, to keep learning. In the battle to overcome anti-Blackness we first must call it what it is, especially important coming from our White lips. We then must keep seeking out stories that challenge our world view, keep centering experiences that are counter to our own, keep elevating the work of Black people, keep supporting the success of Black communities, and keep patronizing Black businesses.
We share this experience to inspire our fellow White leaders, educators, thinkers, citizens to consider what truths they have yet to learn and to seek them out. We had to go all the way to Alabama to find this moment of awakening, this unlearning of American history as we knew it, which month later has inspired a (re)commitment to being truly anti-racist in our personal and professional lives. Do not wait for your own impromptu road trip to stumble upon the violent truths of American racism, confront your own biases and commit to the project of dismantling White supremacy.