Bryan Stevenson's Legacy Museum in Montgomery Aims for Truth TellingHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, racism, lynching, public history
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We've been talking about how the Supreme Court is addressing some of this country's most contentious topics, like abortion and religion. Now we're going to go to Montgomery, Ala., where a new museum that just opened this weekend is taking a very big, hard look at another of this country's most radioactive matters, the history of slavery and racism. It's called The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. And it's actually not quite new. It first opened in 2018, but it's now been expanded to four times the original footprint to some 40,000 square feet.
It's the latest project of attorney Bryan Stevenson, who is known for his groundbreaking legal work in behalf of death row prisoners through the Equal Justice Initiative and his bestselling memoir, "Just Mercy." The museum is an extension of his other passion project, pushing Americans to look at how slavery has shaped American history, including how America chooses to deal with crime and punishment, and most especially incarceration. That work also includes a memorial to victims of lynching, also in Alabama. But today, we want to focus on the museum and how it all came together, so we've called Bryan Stevenson once again. And he's with us now.
Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us.
BRYAN STEVENSON: Oh, it's my pleasure. Happy to be with you.
MARTIN: So congratulations on the opening - or the expansion of the previous museum, which is dedicated to - well, the memorial, of course, is dedicated to honoring the lives of victims of lynching. And there was a smaller museum attached to it. I'm just wondering, what prompted the expansion? What more did you feel needed to be said?
STEVENSON: Well, there was so much content we couldn't include in the first space just because of the size. And I do think we're at a moment where we're debating whether we're going to be honest about our history, about our past and learn from it, reckon with it and move forward, or we're going to double down on silence and these false narratives. And I just felt like this was a moment that required more from cultural institutions. The first museum didn't talk about the transatlantic slave trade at all. So a lot of our visitors would come, and they'd see the slavery conversation starting in the South and didn't appreciate that Massachusetts was the first state that legalized slavery, that Boston and New York City and Rhode Island and Connecticut were major slave trading spaces. And we just had a ton more content like that that we wanted to share with visitors.
MARTIN: There is significance to the location that you've...
MARTIN: ...Chosen for the museum. It's my understanding that it's built on the grounds of a former cotton warehouse. Can you tell a little bit about why it's situated there and what is the significance of that?
STEVENSON: The new museum is on the site of a former cotton warehouse where thousands of enslaved people were forced to labor in bondage. It's on a street that was two blocks from the rail station where hundreds of enslaved people landed each day in Montgomery, were put in chains and paraded up that street where they were assessed for purchase, commodified. And I do think there's something powerful when you're standing in these spaces learning about this history, knowing that the soil you're standing on is the same soil where enslaved people sweated. It's the same soil where Black people were lynched and bled. It's the soil where, in the '50s and '60s, African Americans were humiliated and found a way to fight. And I think it's important that the authenticity of this space be a part of the experience.
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