Today is Juneteenth. The federal holiday in the United States recognizes and commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. On this day in 1865, under general order No. 3 by the Union Army General Gordon Granger, it proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Texas. Despite the years that have passed since its origin, it was not recognized as a federal holiday until June 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law.
The United States has eradicated slavery and provided recognition of this proclamation. Yet, work remains to be done, as the Equal Justice Initiative points out. The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is an educational museum in Montgomery, Alabama, on the site of a former warehouse where Black people were forced to labor. The exhibition offers an informative journey through various visuals, including sculpture, videography, and interactive media. Focusing on the slave trade, racial terrorism, the Jim Crow South, and how enslavement has shifted to incarceration. Racial inequality’s connection has dramatically impacted our country’s legacy of racial injustice. The Equal Justice Initiative provides a data-rich experience through thought-provoking visuals and audio.
I returned from Montgomery just days ago after visiting the museum for my second time. My first visit was in 2019, when the exhibition space was less expansive and housed in a smaller building. The purpose of my travel was to see the new building, which is four times larger than the original location. As I rounded the corner of the security checkpoint, I was greeted by a dramatic video of large angry waves covering the exhibition entrance. The close-captioned story told of the transatlantic slave trade and the millions of individuals who died at sea as they were stolen from their homeland.
I was naive entering the museum this second time, believing that this visit would be easier and less emotionally draining than the first time I witnessed the harrowing exhibit. I was wrong. As soon as I came upon those ominous waves, I felt a knot in my stomach, reminding me of what was to come. Several walkways are filled with facts, images, and video portrayals of enslaved and incarcerated individuals telling their stories. Visitors are faced with a startling reality rarely presented within museum walls. The deeper I got into the space, the more gutted I felt. A profound sadness set in with tears, disbelief, and heartache, accepting that our country continues to disenfranchise individuals of color.
The museum is divided into several sections, beginning with the slave trade of stolen humans. First-person narratives tell of families being separated and children being sold before being locked up and abused. A wing examines the racial terrorism of lynching, including facts about the lynching of children. Further into the museum, photographs of the Montgomery Bus Boycott participants are presented before another wing highlights the harsh reality of mass incarceration that continues to plague our country. There are audio recordings of innocent people telling their stories of being wrongly condemned and a wall of writings and drawings by children who have been prosecuted as adults.
The museum does not let the visitor off easily, yet what EJI has done with their 4,000 square foot space is miraculous – using art to educate, inform, and enlighten. Since opening in 2018, the museum and accompanying National Memorial for Peace and Justice also referred to as the lynching memorial, have welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The new building includes The Reflection Space, which honors hundreds of people who have worked throughout their lives to challenge racial injustice. The quiet room inspires its visitors to reflect on what each of us can do to make a difference. Past this area lies the newly added art gallery. It features works by several acclaimed artists such as Deborah Roberts, Titus Kaphar, Glenn Ligon, Faith Ringgold, and Dawn Williams Boyd, among others. It’s a light and airy atmosphere contrasting with the dark and profoundly challenging interior.
Both times I have departed the Legacy Museum, I’ve walked away feeling a profound stillness. A gut-wrenching acceptance that silence and inaction are not an option when we continue to see racial injustice in our country. Following the uprising that occurred after the murder of George Floyd, EJI Founder Bryan Stevenson stated, “for many Americans, the last year has generated a new desire to examine our history more carefully and to understand the consequences of enslavement, mob violence and Jim Crow laws on contemporary issues. We believe our museum and memorial can contribute enormously to that education.”
So today, on Juneteenth, as we reflect on and honor the emancipation of those who were violently stripped of their freedom, let us also consider the impact those actions have had on further generations. Let us ask what we can do to right the wrongs of the past while finding compassion and empathy for those not treated with equality, respect, and grace.
“The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” -Bryan Stevenson.