From Lynching to Lockup: This Museum Traces America’s Legacy of Injustice

The From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum plans to show how past treatment of black Americans influences the present.
A rendering of the From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum. (Photo: Equal Justice Initiative)
Aug 30, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In 1939, Billie Holiday’s cover of the poem “Strange Fruit” put racial discrimination and the lynchings of black people in the United States firmly in the international spotlight. Who can forget Holiday mournfully singing the lyrics “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”?

A museum being constructed in Montgomery, Alabama, plans to ensure that the names of the roughly 4,000 black men, women, and children who were hanged from trees are remembered. Because lynching is only one part of America’s long legacy of racial injustice, the From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum will show visitors how different historical eras—slavery, Jim Crow, and modern-day prison sentencing and police violence—are connected.

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“You begin to see that the state we’re in now isn’t a coincidence, that we have a history of systemic oppression and that it will take real, meaningful, and truthful reform to get to that era [of racial justice],” Kiara Boone, deputy program manager of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, which came up with the concept for the museum, told TakePart. “In order to do that, we have to be knowledgeable of this history in order to know how to heal. This historical context becomes essential and critical for us to move forward.”

The Alabama-based organization, which has worked since 1994 to eradicate poverty and racial injustice and to reform the criminal justice system, operates out of a building in Montgomery that was a slave warehouse in the 19th century. It’s repurposing 10,000 square feet for the museum. “We thought of it as an opportunity to use a space we were fortunate to already have to be able to go deeper into this narrative,” Boone said.

A “Memorial to Peace and Justice,” which will honor people who were lynched, will be a prominent feature of the museum. The names of about 4,000 lynching victims will be engraved onto concrete pillars that look out over the city of Montgomery. The group said in a statement that it would also overlook “the American South, where terror lynchings were most prevalent.” Soil samples collected from lynching sites in America, a separate memorial project Equal Justice Initiative started earlier this year, will also be on display.

Interactive virtual reality films and exhibits about the slave trade, lynching, segregation, and the criminal justice system will be included, as will the work of modern artists. Through a partnership with New York City–based interactive design firm Local Projects, the work of black artists will be on display, as will exhibits such as a model of a slave plantation.

“If you look at truth and reconciliation processes, the common technique is to have truth telling before you can produce healing,” Jake Barton, the director of Local Projects, told TakePart. He anticipates that some museum visitors will find the exhibits to be contradictory to prevailing Southern narratives that characterize slavery as good for black Americans. The goal of the museum, Barton said, is to change those perceptions of American slavery and shed light on how it evolved into different forms of racial injustice.

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Barton said that in his previous experience creating memorial museums, such as the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, having critical dialogue is vital to telling a “challenging, scorching narrative” with which people can develop “an ability to create peace going forward.”

Boone said the history that the From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum will explore can catalyze conversations about policy reform. To take memorial efforts nationwide, the Equal Justice Initiative plans to create duplicates of the engraved pillars to install at lynching sites nationwide.

“What we’ve done in this country is been really silent about certain parts of our history, or we haven’t told the complete truth about everything,” Boone said. “By having an opportunity to just think critically about what we’ve done as a nation and what our history is, I hope people will really spend some time wrestling with that internally and with others.”