This quotation from Maya Angelou is written on the walls of what is now The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration located on the site of a former warehouse where slaves were kept in prison while awaiting their fate in Montgomery, Alabama before the Civil War and the emancipation proclamation. Pretty, our tour guide, had made reservations for us to visit this museum at 9:30 last Saturday morning so our group of four was up and about very early on a gorgeous warm day. Our motel was right around the corner from the museum so we all walked over – still laughing and teasing each other about the winning and losing from the card games the night before.
The museum itself is open to the public by reservation, but it is not staffed by tour guides. Everyone is allowed to wander at their own pace to read the explanations of the artifacts, documents and jars of dirt collected at verified lynching sites across the country from 1882 to the present. The number of sites is still undetermined but from 1882 – 1968, nearly 5,000 African Americans were reportedly lynched in states across this country. Congressman John Lewis who wrote the foreword for the book Without Sanctuary calls these lynchings the “hangings, burnings, castrations and torture of an American holocaust…what is it in the human psyche that would drive a person to commit such acts of violence against their fellow citizens?”
Our group split up as we meandered around through the various amazing exhibits. Pretty and I wandered in one direction, Leora and Carmen went off on their own journey through time as we all saw the intimate lives of American slaves come alive through the magic of hologram technology that portrayed the heartache of families savagely separated from each other, the pleas of the children looking for their mother. Interesting fact: approximately 12 million people were kidnapped over the three centuries of slave trade to America, according to The Legacy Museum. 12 million living, breathing individuals. I felt overwhelmed by the atrocities with each turn Pretty and I made on our visit.
Overwhelmed, ashamed, guilty, angry – those are the emotions that swirled around in my mind with each personal account of my legacy as a white person in America. The pictures that showed cheering crowds of us – sometimes in the thousands – while an African American man was hanged, shot, burned…pieces of his body sold as souvenirs…post card pictures made…popcorn sold. I dreaded looking at the people watching the horrific acts in a party mood with as much fear that I would recognize someone in the crowds as the fear I felt for forcing myself to look at the actual horrific acts perpetrated by the mob violence. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how Leora and Carmen felt.
“The museum connects the legacy of slavery with subsequent decades of racial terrorism and lynching. Visitors see the link between codified racial hierarchy enforced by elected official and law enforcement with both the past and the present. Contemporary issues surrounding mass incarceration are explored with interactive exhibits and examination of important issues surrounding conditions of confinement, police violence, and the administration of criminal justice.” (Legacy Museum – Equal Justice Initiative)
Interesting fact: One in three black male babies born today is expected to go to jail or prison in his lifetime. One in three. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. In 1979 when Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs, roughly 320,000 people were in prison in our country. Now, the current total incarcerated is 2.1 million people with a higher percentage of people of color.
As Pretty and I were getting ready to leave the museum, Pretty wheeled me to a very large interactive map of the USA. By merely clicking on an individual state, the number of lynched persons discovered to date in that state was highlighted. I foolishly couldn’t resist my native state of Texas. The total number was 338. The interactive map also showed the details by county: the name of the person and the date of the lynching. I made the mistake of going to my home county, Grimes, and saw the names and dates of 10 black men lynched there. Right in my home county. Where were my grandparents on those days, or did I really want to know?
Shortly thereafter, Pretty and I left the museum. Leora and Carmen were not far behind us. We were all truly lost in our own thoughts and the walk back to the hotel was very quiet.
As usual, Pretty saved the day by encouraging us to finish packing for checkout, finish the leftover food in our room, and call for our car. We were headed for what turned out to be redemption for us all at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and a woman named Wanda who helped us shift our focus from evil to good. Hallelujah!