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New memorial for lynching victims reaches for truth and reconciliation

How the new National Memorial to Peace and Justice and a new museum show architecture’s power to confront, and learn from, the past

More than 800 hanging Corten steel monuments represent victims of lynching in the United States.

The discussion over monuments, and our civic memories, has lately focused on what kind of statues we don’t want.

As of April 2016, more than 1,500 monuments to the Confederacy could be found in public squares across the United States, from the statues in New Orleans that former mayor Mitch Landrieu opposed as symbols of the “Cult of the Lost Cause,” to the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, catalyst for a protest that has became a searing image of the Trump era.

New museums and monuments opening next week will pose a question we should be asking more and more: What kind of monuments do we want—and need?

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration will present new memorials to African Americans’ experiences, as well as a powerful examination of America’s prolonged history of racial injustice, when they officially open to the public on April 26.

These issues, approached from different perspectives, have been centerpieces of much of the most notable architecture and design of the last few years, from D.C’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and Houston’s Emancipation Park to Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety,” a temporary sculpture and exhibition in Brooklyn.

Like many of these examples, these twin institutions, including the first memorial in the country dedicated to victims of lynching, ask how design and architecture can bear witness and wrangle with issues of justice and reconciliation.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the local legal advocacy organization funding these new $20 million Montgomery institutions, the new Memorial and Museum—one on a small hill in Montgomery’s Cottage Hill neighborhood, the other in a warehouse a few blocks away—aim to create “a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality.”

The lobby of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration

Bryan Stevenson, the celebrated African-American public-interest lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1993, said that he chose to focus on lynching because he believes that mass atrocities and abuse must be recognized and remembered before a society can recover and reconcile from mass violence.

“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” he explained in a statement. “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

A building borne of history

Located midway between the site of a historic slave market, and the river dock and train station where slaves arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, the museums stand at a crossroads of American history.

The Equal Justice Initiative chose Montgomery in part because the organization’s research revealed the city to be a larger center of the slave trade than previously thought. Now, the museums occupy 11,000 square feet on the former site of a warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned.

The idea for the museum took root in 2010, when EJI started investigating racial terror lynchings. Stevenson, a famous attorney who argued before the Supreme Court and helped get dozens of people off death row, had decided to focus on crimes and injustices further back in history.

The resulting research project not only investigated thousands of incidents of murder and racial terror, many of which had never been documented or examined in depth, but also studied the trauma that violence against the black community created.

Between 1877 and 1950, roughly 4,400 African American men, women, and children were lynched by white mobs, a prime catalyst for the Great Migration, a search for freedom from the shadow of racially-motivated terror in northern cities.

Jars of dirt taken from lynching sites across the United States

The resulting report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents thousands of lynchings in 12 states, created momentum for further examination. EJI staff visited hundreds of lynching sites across the country, collecting soil now collected in the museum.

Designing an “engine for education”

Stephenson’s vision for the space, to honor the victims, reflect upon the present-day meaning of lynching and racial injustice, and educate visitors about these uncomfortable, foundational facets of U.S. history, required architecture and design that, despite the subject matter, aimed to heal.

MASS Design Group, a Boston-based practice with a focus on social impact, designed the Memorial. The firm previously created a design for the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, which features a series of pillar-like confessional spaces. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice echoes that plan’s deep focus on dignity and action.

“We didn’t want a memorial that stood still,” says architect Michael Murphy, executive director at MASS, told Boston’s WBUR Radio. “We wanted something that changed over time.”

A close-up of the steel markers at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Taken as a whole, the rows of Corten steel heighten the impact of the sheer number of lynchings documented at the memorial.

Set within a Miesian box on a hillside, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is the centerpiece of a six-acre site. The somber building features 805 six-foot-tall monuments to lynching, each a piece of weathered steel representing one of the counties where a lynching took place. Hanging from the ceiling of the memorial, the markers offer cold, calculated reminders of the victims.

Taken as a whole, the rows of CorTen steel heighten the impact of the sheer number of lynchings, recalling thee grids of concrete slabs used at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Walking through the memorial, visitors experience perspective shifts. They are drawn into a classic piece of architecture, something like the Parthenon. But as they follow a downward slope once inside, their view shifts. They see the metal columns above them, abstract symbols of past violence. In the middle of the memorial, a courtyard creates a place of both reflection and judgment; it’s a spot where the visitor can experience the metal memorials looking back at them.

Next to the memorials, a field filled with identical markers represents “monuments in purgatory.” It’s reconciliation mixed with shaming; over the next few years, EJI will try to place monuments in the counties where lynchings took place. Those who refuse the monuments will have their own history painfully underlined in Montgomery, as their markers will remain unclaimed outside the memorial. Murphy compared the participatory process of healing and reconciliation that would result from placing these monuments across the country to a “barnraising.”

The museum picks up the threads of the painful history covered in the Memorial. The entrance includes replicas of the pens in which the enslaved were corralled and a display that recreates the feeling of waiting for one’s turn on an auction block. Exhibits and video chronicle lynching, the Jim Crow South, and contemporary racial injustice.

Boasting the nation’s most comprehensive collection of data on lynching, the museum will also serve as a valuable archive, with outreach to scholars to establish the museum as an “engine for education” as well as reconciliation.

That aim, to become not just a wrenching snapshot, but a living institution, speaks to EJI’s grander goals with its Montgomery projects. If, as the famous Justice Brandies quote goes, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” this is a bracing confrontation with the past.

A sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo

Certain monuments, in the South and elsewhere, have for years been erected, celebrated, and protected, statues that, as one historian told Curbed, are “monuments to white supremacy” that “provide a shelter for celebrating the ‘Lost Cause.’” Many of these monuments may be in the same squares where the events chronicled by EJI took place. Our places, Stephenson says, are “burdened by iconography.”

As the public gets its first glance of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration this weekend, there will doubtless be discussions about what kind of places for reflection these are. Perhaps the best metaphor is a bridge, a type of structure that, especially in Alabama, has come to represent America’s striving for peace and justice.

“I’m hopeful that sites like the ones we’re building and conversations like the ones we’re organizing will empower and inspire people to have the courage to create a more just and healthy future,” Stevenson told the Birmingham Times. “We can achieve more in America when we commit to truth-telling about our past.”