Peace and Justice

Part 2. The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration

David Smitherman
10 min readNov 27, 2023

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, opened in 2018, as joint projects of the Equal Justice Initiative to present the plight of Africans, and African Americans in particular. I toured this Museum and the Memorial twice during this past year, it was just too much to take in for just one visit.

The Legacy Museum building was reworked by Davis Architects to convert it from a former warehouse where slaves were once penned and sold, to a museum that still contains a few walls of the former slave section.

The Legacy Museum, by Davis Architects.

Davis Architects, is based in Birmingham Alabama, with Neil E. Davis, president and director of design. He studied at Auburn University in Auburn Alabama.

No photography is permitted inside the museum section, so there are only a few photographs in this part of the story. This is good, because the spaces and exhibits are designed to be a place of respect, education, and reflection. The overall presentation is incredibly thoughtful, horrifying, and artistically moving, so I’ll share from my memory the things I learned on my visits.

The Slave Trade

The museum tour begins with the Transatlantic Slave Trade section, and features sculptures by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, the same sculptor of Nkyinkyim, at the Memorial. Through graphics, sculpture, and visuals, you learn that from the 16th to 19th centuries there were about 12 million Africans kidnapped and transported to the Americas, and that about 2 million of them died at sea. The Atlantic Ocean is a vast grave for millions.

In the British Colonies and their transition to the United States, our militias drove out Native Americans so white settlers, many with black slaves, could settle and work the lands to produce cotton and other products. After the invention of the cotton gin in 1790, the demand for cotton grew, and an era in the early 1800s known as Alabama Fever, brought a large influx of settlers with slaves to Alabama.

Conflicts and disagreements over the slave trade grew in the new United States, such that in 1808, Congress abolished the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to stop the kidnapping, and shipping of Africans to the United States. That spurred the Domestic Slave Trade, where blacks were sold, and moved south, as more northern states placed more restrictions on slavery. Montgomery Alabama soon became the largest slave market in the region, where there were more black slaves than white residents. The Legacy Museum site is only one of many locations throughout the city that held and sold slaves.

There are several beautiful and heart wrenching sculptures that display the pain and agony of those enslaved. Two in particular caught my attention by Sandrine Plante. They are Le Cri, âmes soeurs, (The Scream, Soulmates), which depicts a couple in bondage with the man muzzled and the woman screaming in anger and fear; and Exode, No Home, (meaning Exodus) depicting a woman in bondage.

Sandrine Plante is a figurative sculptor of African memories. She was born in 1974, in the Puy de Dôme region in France, and studied with sculptors Jean Chauchard in France, and Paul Belmondo and Gigi Guadagnucci in Italy.

A Paper Trail

We know these horrors occurred in the former Colonies and the United States, because there is an extensive paper trail that cannot be denied. Newspapers across the country listed slaves for sale, bounties for fugitive slaves, along with a host of laws designed to protect and maintain the slave trade.

After the Civil War it was found that about 150,000 slaves had been separated from their spouse, and children, through sales, and a quarter of those sales were of children. Newspaper notices illustrated the pain families continued to endure, as they posted adds seeking information on their lost family members.

Racial Terror

For a few years after the Civil War, while Federal troops were stationed in the south to promote Reconstruction, African Americans made progress toward freedom with land ownership, wages, and a voice in local governments. But then congress changed, the presidency changed, and the north turned their backs on those that had only recently been freed. As a result, Reconstruction collapsed, and white communities began exerting white supremacy over blacks through a campaign of terror.

For many black families there was no place to go, but to continue working the fields as sharecroppers, for local white landowners. The lack of labor controls led to families working long hours, while still building up debts that became impossible to repay. Conflicts of any kind led to arrests and prison where the state profited from convict leasing programs. Many were basically re-enslaved on private farms, mines, and plantations.

Between 1910 and 1940, about 6 million African Americans fled the south to urban ghettos in the north and west. Lynchings had become a constant terror tactic to maintain white supremacy. Some of the worst massacres occurred in Elaine Arkansas in 1919, Tulsa Oklahoma in 1921, and Rosewood Florida in 1923, where entire black communities were burned to the ground, and hundreds killed. In remembrance of those horrors, over 800 soil samples from lynching sites have been collected so far, and placed on display in the museum along with the name and date of each victim.

Segregation Forever

Following the collapse of Reconstruction, when Federal troops left the south, a barrage of laws were passed to restrict the freedom of blacks, enforce segregation, and maintain white supremacy. These were known as Jim Crow laws, a derogatory term used toward blacks. Before the Brown vs Board of Education case, the courts had refused to act on Jim Crow laws, but that changed in the 1950s, as several cases began to assert the rights of African Americans. A Civil Rights Movement began in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the selection of their leader and spokesperson, Martin Luther King, a minister at a local church in Montgomery.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr, 1929 to 1968, was a minister, activist, and political Philosopher, who led the Civil Rights Movement until his death by assassination. He was born in Atlanta Georgia, and studied at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland Pennsylvania, and Boston University in Massachusetts. In 1954, he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama.

Mass Incarceration

The Civil Rights Movement addressed voting, education, employment, housing, and public accommodations, but left the justice system untouched, leading to an ongoing presumption of guilt for black Americans. This problem was significantly impacted by President Richard Nixon, and what he called the War on Drugs. Since 1968, this politicized war has stoked fake fears by nearly every administration since, resulting in an increase in the prison population from 300,000 to 2.3 million. One out of every one hundred Americans, most of whom are black, are prisoners in America, the highest per capita imprisonment in the world. Here is a quote on this subject from Nixon’s domestic affairs advisor, John Ehrlichman.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left, and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” quote by John Ehrlichman.

Now, over 50 years later, the drug war still persists in the public and political psyche; something that can be easily used to charge and convict African Americans, and anyone that local authorities consider undesirable. Hundreds of blacks have been wrongly convicted, and many released, thanks to new DNA analysis, and other evidence that proved false. Thousands have been sent to prison for life under the three strikes your out policies many state lawmakers have adopted, and thousands of juveniles have been sentenced to life due to mandatory sentencing laws. The dramatic increase in the number of prisoners has overwhelmed the prison system. Tax money is lacking and so overcrowded prisons have led to violence and inhumane conditions, including the housing of about ten thousand juveniles in adult prisons. Alabama is noted as having the most dangerous prisons in the country.

Making Change Happen

My career, all of it spent in Alabama, was in a high tech field where in Huntsville we have one of the highest educated work forces in the country. In Part 1 of this story I mentioned that there were no black professors leading my college classes. Well, I now think that our high tech workforce has been under represented by the black community throughout my career. I don’t think this was necessarily due to discrimination, but perhaps because there are not enough blacks coming out of our educational institutions to fill the needed positions. I now wonder if the reason is related to mass incarceration, where black Americans are targeted at a young age and disciplined in such a way that there chances of moving up are restricted. All it takes is a charge or conviction of some minor offense, and whether guilty or not, you can be marked for life. I don’t know for sure if this is the case, but it seems likely.

After two centuries of slavery, another century of terror, and now into the fourth century of fear and mass incarceration of African Americans, we should all reflect on our past, and come to terms with the fact that it is not over, and that more must be done to heal our nation. The Equal Justice Initiative has some suggestions for how we can all get involved.

  1. Visit the Legacy Museum and Memorial sites.
  2. Watch the films available through the Equal Justice Initiative.
  3. Identify lynching sites in your area and encourage local officials to erect historic markers in their memory.
  4. Support other local organizations working toward justice.
  5. Vote and support criminal justice reforms.

In addition to these actions, something else caught my attention as I toured, and have discussed in some of my own Travel Log stories. I am touring the state capitols and historic sites across the United States, and a few in foreign countries. When slavery is noted in the local history, I try to include what is said. But, I suspect there are many where nothing is said, and these architectural and artistic wonders actually used slave labor, convict labor, or at least took the money made from the slave trade to finance these monuments. I plan to be more thoughtful of that in my future travel writings, and will plan to go back and revisit some of the stories I have already completed, to see if perhaps some editing should be done.

Travel Notes

In addition to the Museum, there is a book store where I found books on the museum, and Pannie George’s Kitchen where I enjoyed a great lunch before going into the museum. It is a cafeteria style eatery with varying menus from day to day.

The books, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and The Legacy Museum, and Pannie-George’s Kitchen.

At the bookstore I purchased the books The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and The Legacy Museum, available in soft and hard covers. Both are excellent reading, and helped me remember much of what I had seen.

I live in north Alabama, so my first trip was a day trip to Montgomery and back. I spent the afternoon at the two sites, but that seemed rushed, so on my second trip I spent the night. That worked because I was able to spend nearly a full day reading more materials at both sites, and taking more photographs at the Memorial.

Travel routes and charging stations.

I drive an electric car, and was pleased to find a Fairfield Inn with free guest charging stations for overnight charging. There is a supercharging station nearby, just incase these are filled up when you arrive. Oh, and dinner just down the street at the Walk Ons, Bistreaux and Sports Bar. They make a great gourmet hamburger!

Notes and References

Story and photographs by David Smitherman with site visits made in September and October 2023.

Historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, and Google Maps.

The book, “The Legacy Museum,” by the Equal Justice Initiative, 2021; and the websites linked to the text in this story.

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David Smitherman

Retired architect and space architect from NASA. Married with a growing family. Currently into travel, historical architecture, photography and genealogy.