Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Today there is a craft-coffee shop across the street, on the first floor of a building from 1898, which was home to the S. H. Kress & Co. department store. During a recent renovation, workers found bricks made by enslaved women, which were donated to the Equal Justice Initiative. Hip and industrial, it resembles a coffee shop that one might find in San Francisco. It seems odd for such a place to look out on a former slave market, especially given the historic connection between slavery and coffee. Yet these two spaces appear to be in deep conversation with each other. The shop’s owners, who are white, got interested in ethically sourced coffee while working for an N.G.O. in West Africa. We ordered coffee and biscuits and wondered whether the past that has made Alabama infamous could be a force for economic development, as the new memorial draws visitors to the area. Would that revival benefit its citizens equally? The name of the coffee shop, which isn’t visible from the street outside, is Prevail Union.
Between the fountain and the Alabama River, the Legacy Museum occupies a building that was once a warehouse for human chattel. Just past the entrance, a ramp slopes down to five “slave pens,” behind which ghostly holograms in nineteenth-century costume tell their stories. Visitors huddle around the pens and listen closely, as the figures speak in hushed tones. The effect is authentic—maybe because this is a building where such scenes took place, and the testimonies are those of real people. The ghostly prisoners include two children dressed in white nightshirts. “Mama!” they cry. “Mama?”
As visitors leave the ghosts in the cages, the museum painstakingly shows how slavery, after Reconstruction, was “dusted off and repurposed” in the American penal system. The words of an enslaved man named Aaron, near the entrance, seem to have prophesied a person like Stevenson: “Go to the slave auction! See humans from infancy to gray hairs sold. See human souls bartered for cash. See families that God hath joined together, separated, never more to meet in this world. Count, if you can, the groans, fathom the bitter woes, occasioned by these separations . . . . Follow out the investigation into its detail, and you will begin to learn the greatness of the sin.”
One exhibit wall holds shelves of Mason jars filled with soil from lynching sites.
We think of racial violence in the South as male violence—men in white hoods—but the memorial makes the role of Southern women explicit. As Ida B. Wells wrote in “Southern Horrors,” “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
The rain moved on, and the sun went in and out of gray clouds. The steel slabs threw ovoid shadows onto the wooden floor—shadows with a softer and more human shape than their steel counterparts. I Googled the county where my grandmother is buried, next to her husband and her parents. We had been there in 2005, for her memorial, driving through green Kentucky horse country, noting Confederate flags from the windows of the rental car. There was one ragged, nearly translucent specimen, like something from a Hollywood movie about the South. The cemetery is in Breckinridge County, and so that was the region I looked for at the memorial. I finally stopped to ask a young man in an Equal Justice Initiative T-shirt; as soon as I asked the question, though, I looked up—we were standing underneath it. There were three names, representing the lynchings in Breckinridge County that the Initiative has been able to document:
“You found it,” Allyson said.
I said that I’d kind of been hoping I wouldn’t find it—that Breckinridge might be the sole Southern county in which there had been no lynchings.
Allyson nodded. “I’ve been afraid that I would find my family’s name,” she said.
According to officials and security guards at the memorial, the residents of Montgomery are not visiting the memorial or museum. “I’ve seen more Europeans than Montgomerians,” one security guard said.
Read the whole thing here.