The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama has opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in the organisation’s home town. It is hoped that the new museum will provide a comprehensive history of the United States from the perspective of social justice. The EJI, which offers legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes as well as those who may not have benefited from a sound defence when they were tried, says that much of the museum will have a focus on the legacy of slavery in America.
According to the EJI, the transatlantic slave trade and, in particular, its effect on the coastal communities across America’s eastern seaboard, will feature in the Legacy Museum’s remit. The institution also says the museum will seek to contextualise the domestic slave trade in the United States prior to the American Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed it. In a statement posted online, the EJI stated that the museum would provide interactive content for visitors along with what it referred to as ‘detailed’ and ‘compelling narratives’.
A Long History
As well as the nineteenth-century abolition of slavery, the museum will delve into the experience of twentieth-century African-Americans including the many racially motivated lynchings that occurred along with the widespread racial segregation that was in force in numerous states. In addition, the museum features exhibits that tell the story of the over-incarceration of certain racial groups in the US in the last century. Many of these are brought vividly to life thanks to the use of historic films, stills and first-person testimonies.
The EJI decided to build the new Legacy Museum on a site where formerly enslaved people were kept prior to them being forced into labour as slaves. In their announcement, the EJI said that the Legacy Museum would provide an ‘immersive experience’ for attendees thanks to some cutting-edge technology, world-class works of art and some of the most acclaimed scholarship in this field of American history. Among the many harrowing exhibits are statues of men, women and children in chains, some of which have been hauntingly placed in sand so that they appear to be tied to the earth as much as each other, representing the way in which the slave trade was, for many landowners, seen as an essential part of the way they ran their plantations.
Bryan Stevenson, the EJI’s executive director, said that the aim of the Legacy Museum was to teach the aspects of American history that are not as confronted as frequently they ought to be. He said that gaining a better understanding of that history was a prerequisite for the country to be able to move forwards together and to heal. “I think there is something better awaiting us in [this country],” he said. Stevenson went on to add that he thought something that feels more like equality was just around the corner so long as sometimes bitter truths could be faced. “[This would be]… more like freedom, more like justice than we have experienced thus far,” he said. “However, to get there, we are going to have to confront the damage that’s been caused.”
Stevenson went on to add that part of the current problems the country faced was dealing with the ‘lingering challenges’ that have been generated by such a lengthy period of historic racial inequality. It is for this reason that the museum has been established. It will mean that facing such historic injustice is something that is open to all.
The 3,700-square-metre Legacy Museum is located in central Montgomery, a city that is widely associated with some of the most notable events of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Along with the Rosa Parks Museum, the Freedom Rides Museum and the critically acclaimed National Memorial for Peace and Justice, an institution that opened in April 2018, the Legacy Museum is part of a wider cultural renaissance in the area.
According to the EJI, the new museum provides a unique chance for visitors to come to a reckoning with some of the most challenging aspects of the United States’ past. For example, the wing of the museum devoted to the transatlantic slave trade includes short animated films that feature the acting skills of award-winning performers such as Don Cheadle, Lupita Nyong’o and Wendell Pierce. Among some of the harrowing tales that are explained from that time include the sexual exploitation of slaves, especially enslaved women, by slave owners and others, something that has traditionally been neglected by some museums and exhibitions devoted to slavery.
The museum will create a space where people will find it more confident in being able to deal with the history of slavery and race relations in the US more honestly, according to the EJI. By addressing some of the more difficult parts of this history – just as the Republic of South Africa has been honest about its apartheid-era past and German institutions have faced up to the realities of the Holocaust in Europe – it is hoped the Legacy Museum will have an ongoing positive effect in American society. According to Stevenson, one of the things that the museum has purposely charged with creating is the conditions for a society where future generations are not burdened by the history of racial inequality that current ones are. “[We want them to be]… free to move through their lives without any assumptions being made about them based on the colour of their skin,” he said.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.