The National Lynching Memorial and Museum outside of Montgomery, Alabama, isn’t scheduled to debut until next spring, but marketing and development efforts are already well underway. The memorial is the brainchild of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit that raises awareness about racial injustice and advocates for equal treatment in the criminal justice system. In honor of African American History Month, we recently caught up with EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson to learn more about what the attraction will be like when it opens.
What will be the highlights of the design of the National Lynching Memorial?
The “Memorial to Peace and Justice,” as it will be called, will sit on six acres of land atop a rise that overlooks Montgomery. It will become the nation’s first national memorial to victims of racial terror lynching and is part of a major project to confront our nation’s history of racial injustice. The massive structure will contain the names of more than 4,000 lynching victims engraved on suspended concrete columns. Each column will represent a county in the United States where lynchings took place. More than 800 counties across the country will be invited to retrieve duplicate columns surrounding the memorial with the names of each county’s lynching victims for local memorialization. The design of the memorial will simulate the suspended bodies of lynching victims and take visitors on a journey through the menace and terror of this era of racial violence.
How does the museum component fit into the memorial?
Our racial justice museum, called “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” will be located at the headquarters of EJI in downtown Montgomery, on the site of a former slave warehouse. The 11,000-square-foot museum will feature art, sculpture, videos, and the largest collection of data about lynching in the United States. The EJI museum will present previously unseen archival information about the domestic slave trade brought to life through new technology. Excessive punishment, wrongful convictions, police violence, and a range of contemporary issues will also be explored.
Why make the distinction between museum and memorial?
Our museum and memorial are two separate but interconnected projects. The memorial will honor victims of lynchings; the museum will provide context for the story of those events.
What is the origin story of this museum? How did idea and funds for this come together?
We have very few places in America that deal honestly with our history of enslavement. No prominent monument or memorial exists to commemorate the thousands of African Americans who were lynched during the era of racial terrorism in America. That’s why we felt it was important to build a memorial to remember and commemorate the lives of the black men, women, and children who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs in the American South between 1877 and 1950. The funds for the museum and memorial come from a combination of foundations and private donors, and their support has allowed us to make an enormous step forward in advancing cultural projects which we feel are critically important at a time when the legacy of racial bias still persists.
What do you expect visitors to take away from the experience?
We hope visitors will learn that our history of racial inequality is long and painful; that to overcome the problems it has created will require much more work, attention, and commitment than we have made collectively. We also hope people are inspired to become engaged in confronting contemporary bias and discrimination and joining our efforts to eliminate racism, bigotry, and injustice.
And what about the attraction do you think will surprise visitors most?
We think visitors to our memorial will be surprised by the size and the scale of it and the opportunity to take a part of it back to their community if they commit to this work. We hope the museum will expose people to an understanding of our history of enslavement, terrorism, and segregation that creates new insights into a range of contemporary issues.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.