Lee Bey

On an elevated and serene 6-acre site in Montgomery, Ala., and in a former warehouse in the city’s downtown, one of the most brutal stories in American history is now being told. More than 4,000 African-Americans were lynched in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950. The slaughtered included men, women, children—even whole families—that white mobs and police hanged, drowned, beat to death, or set afire with impunity and outright legal sanction. Even though the savagery often took place in public town squares, and was sometimes advertised in newspapers beforehand, the names of the victims and the circumstances of their death were largely lost to history.

But that changed in April, when the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and its companion site, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, opened in Alabama’s capital city, the culmination of a six-year, $20 million effort. The open-air memorial features the names of the 4,400 people who were lynched during a reign of terror that lasted from the end of Reconstruction all the way to the dawn of the Atomic Age, when the number of lynchings trailed off. The Legacy Museum, located on a site where slaves were once caged before they were sold in what was one of the largest slave ports in antebellum America, provides a deeper, historic dive into that violent history.

Created in a collaboration between the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and the Boston architecture firm MASS Design Group, the memorial is the more iconic and architecturally significant of the two projects. It conveys a low-key and respectful beauty as it tells a story that is as ugly as it is important. “I have no interest in punishing America for this history,” says EJI founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson, a celebrated Montgomery attorney and civil rights activist whose organization provides legal assistance to the poor, condemned, and wrongly incarcerated. “I want to liberate us,” he says. “I want us to get to the part where [there is] redemption and restoration and rehabilitation … but you can’t get to that unless you acknowledge the past.”

Bryan Stevenson
Lee Bey Bryan Stevenson

That such a memorial and museum could be built in Montgomery of all places is, in one sense, remarkable: More than 360 people were lynched in Alabama alone during the time period commemorated by the project. Montgomery was not just a major slave trading port, but after the Civil War it remained a bulwark against black equality and civil rights. The Alabama State Capitol dome—where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy, and where Gov. George Wallace made his infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech a century later—is visible from the site.

But this is also the city of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, a landmark event that led to the rise of the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr., the young pastor from Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. “So there is, in my view, no better place to confront this history,” Stevenson told me. “If we can do something in Montgomery, Alabama, I’m persuaded we can do it anywhere in America.”

The landscaped space at the center of the square that overlooks the memorial
Lee Bey The landscaped space at the center of the square that overlooks the memorial

A History that Continues to Burden Us
The memorial and museum are the brainchild of Stevenson, who sees the two sites as an extension of his organization’s work, which includes exhaustive research and scholarship on lynching. The project is part of a recent wave of cultural sites that are attempting to re-examine and recontextualize black history, slavery, and the Jim Crow era. They include, most prominently, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.; the Whitney Plantation Museum in Wallace, La.; and the International African American Museum, now under construction in Charleston, S.C. EJI’s memorial in particular comes as the nation—and the South especially—struggles with the question of what to do with Confederate monuments, particularly those erected decades after the Civil War as a direct response to white fears of black advancement. What’s behind this movement? “We know that we have to create cultural spaces that disrupt this narrative that we [as a country] have entertained—that we have this glorious past and things were wonderful and romantic in the mid-19th century,” Stevenson told me. “We can no longer pretend that this history doesn’t continue to burden us. Because it does.”

At 11,000 square feet, the museum is a relatively small but effective space with exhibitions, texts, a film, and animation: Holograms portray slaves in pens awaiting sale; a Google-powered map console allows users to touch a state and see a county-by-county breakdown of the lynchings that happened there; contemporary stories recount the wrongly imprisoned. Taken together, the displays cast slavery, the lynching era, and modern-day mass incarceration of black people as part of the same racially oppressive continuum. The exhibits remind us, for instance, that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude—except as punishment for a crime. In one video exhibit, visitors can chat on a prison phone with an inmate, Robert Caston—who was locked up in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, until EJI’s efforts freed him in 2012—and who tells us that he and other inmates were forced to pick cotton. Adding to the insult: Angola was built on the grounds of a former plantation.

Six-foot-tall Cor-Ten steel slabs hang at the memorial site
Lee Bey Six-foot-tall Cor-Ten steel slabs hang at the memorial site

The museum properly sets the stage for a visit to the National Memorial, about a 15-minute walk to the south. Inspired in both design and intent by two other international projects, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the site revolves mainly around Memorial Square, essentially an open-air pavilion that features 816 6-foot-tall rectangular Cor-Ten steel slabs. Each slab represents a county in which a lynching took place, and each slab bears the names of those victims and the years in which they were killed.

When a visitor enters the square, the slabs are at eye level and are close enough to touch or walk between. But the wood floor slants downward as you progress through the memorial, creating a profound effect: the feeling that the slabs—suspended from the ceiling—are rising as you pass, until they are directly overhead. “The idea [is] that this history is still casting a shadow,” Stevenson told me. “Still menacing. Still obstructing our ability to be liberated and free. And architecturally the most effective way to do that was to have people walk underneath the narrative and experience the shadow.”

Because the Cor-Ten pieces have already started acquiring patinas that range from reddish brown to near slate—not unlike the diversity of African-American complexions—visitors can’t help but think that they’re walking among the symbolic figures of hanged lynching victims. It’s a deeply unsettling experience—and a courageous design choice. “The goal [of those who lynched] wasn’t to hide it,” Stevenson says. “The goal was to actually lift it up and use it to torment and taunt and terrorize people of color. So that optic of raising—of lifting—these monuments up is really important to appreciate this history.”

An inscription at the memorial site
Lee Bey An inscription at the memorial site

Stevenson told me there were initial suggestions to make the slabs lighter in color, using materials such as fiberglass, but “none of them were going to have the optic of those brown structures dangling.” Indeed, during a 2016 TED Talk, Michael Murphy, MASS Design’s co-founder and executive director, displayed a rendering of an earlier scheme in which lighter-colored materials were used for the slabs and the roof.

The emotional experience of the memorial is heightened by stories of the lynchings, which appear on a wall inside the square. Among the brief but chilling narratives: Grant Cole was lynched in Montgomery in 1925 for refusing to run an errand for a white woman. Ballie Crutchfield was lynched in Rome, Tenn., in 1901, when the mob, unable to find Ballie’s brother, who was accused of stealing a white man’s pocketbook containing $120, decided she would do just as well. According to the Scranton Republican newspaper, the mob set upon Ballie, tying her hands behind her back, shooting her in the head, and throwing her body off a bridge.

Architecture’s Complicity
A journey though the memorial isn’t entirely comfortable—and that’s not a knock. There are few shaded areas outside Memorial Square itself, but apart from the heat, visitors can’t escape the difficult history represented here: The names and the stories and the weight of it all confronts you at nearly every turn. “You’re going to have to navigate this difficult terrain. … You’re going to have to get closer to this history than might be comfortable,” Stevenson told me. “And we’re not going to make it shaded and padded and beautiful with lots of relief. Because I don’t think that’s honest to this history.”

Visitors aren’t the only ones who will be challenged by the site. Outside the square, in Monument Park, a companion piece to the memorial will function as a kind of dynamic art installation: replicas of the 816 Cor-Ten slabs rest horizontally on the ground, instead of hanging in the air. Stevenson wants the counties represented by each monument to have a local conversation about their own lynching histories, then claim their monument and put it on display back home: “The site will become sort of a report card on which communities have owned up to their history and which ones haven’t.”

A sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the memorial site
Lee Bey A sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the memorial site

Other sculptures play a supporting role at the memorial. Sculptor Dana King’s work depicts the three women who helped plan and carry out the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas’ Raise Up features black men with their arms raised—a riff on the “hands up, don’t shoot” mantra that has accompanied recent police shootings of unarmed African-Americans. Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture, which depicts five chained but defiant African men and women, is the most provocative of the three works. Stevenson told me that placing it at the start of the journey though the memorial is a reminder that the violent injustice against black people in this country began with slavery.

It certainly is of a piece with the city’s history. Just a few blocks away, Commerce Street—an antebellum Wall Street—was designed and built to support the then-slave port. The enslaved were forced off boats on the Alabama River and marched, in chains, up the boulevard to Court Square, an open space on axis with the state capitol building, where they were sold. The captives would have passed handsome brick warehouses—some of which still exist today—where other slaves were locked up among the cotton and other commodities awaiting sale. They would have passed the banks that financed their enslavement and the hotels where their purchasers stayed. “Architecture was complicit in facilitating the slave trade,” as Stevenson puts it. “It was not neutral. Creating the massive warehouses that could hold people and livestock and cotton in the same place. [Creating] the width of [Commerce] … with sidewalks because slaveowners wanted [a place to stand along the boulevard] to evaluate the potential merchandise before the auction began. Architects were playing a role in creating an infrastructure in that.”

The Legacy Museum
Lee Bey The Legacy Museum

EJI clearly does not want the architecture of the project to overshadow its larger message. It’s unclear who the architect of record was for the museum, for instance. Stevenson told me that EJI shaped and coordinated the efforts of a host of artists, filmmakers, and exhibition designers to create the space, including New York City artist and writer Molly Crabapple; Local Projects, a media design firm that specializes in museums and public spaces; Stink Studios; HBO; and Human Pictures, a socially conscious documentary and film production company. The Montgomery building department lists a local firm, Hutcheson Construction, as the museum’s builder but doesn’t list an architect. As for MASS Design, spokespersons did not respond to repeated interview requests. In his TED Talk, Murphy says that he sent a “cold email” to EJI after reading a story about plans for the memorial, and that the firm won the job after meeting with Stevenson and his team.

And yet, if architecture was indeed complicit in facilitating the slave trade, then the memorial and museum demonstrate something else entirely, something more promising and hopeful. As Murphy told the audience during his TED Talk: “Great architecture can give us hope. Great architecture can heal.”