Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Learning from history in Montgomery, Alabama

Montgomery, Alabama. Seen on the walk between The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Taken by Wendy Kalman.

Montgomery, Alabama is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Atlanta, Georgia. And one well worth the trip. A group of women I know from my synagogue and I went there and back, specifically to visit The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. This museum was exceptionally and thoughtfully well done. Curated to both convey information and to connect to visitors on an individually human level, The Legacy Museum packs an emotional punch.

I learned things I did not know. Like how big a part cotton played in the American economy. Like which insurance companies insured enslaved people as property. (New York Life Insurance and Baltimore Life Insurance Company of Maryland, for example.) Like how many enslaved human beings died on the forced and inhumane journey over the oceans and were indiscriminately thrown overboard into a watery grave. (Two million souls.) Like how much northern states benefited from the sale and labor of enslaved people. (While Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery, half of all slave-trading voyages in the 1700s emanated from Rhode Island alone). Like how many banks used human collateral for the mortgages they gave, ultimately owning enslaved Black people when mortgage- and loan-holders defaulted. (Bank of Charleston in South Carolina and Citizens’ Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana, now part of JP Morgan Chase are a few examples.)

The museum takes visitors through the inhumanity of slave auctions with accounts shared of family separations and abuse, of the hope that was sparked but then extinguished during Reconstruction, of the painful post-emancipation notices people put in newspapers, seeking word on whereabouts of those family members who had been sold to others and taken away. Voter suppression, segregation, dehumanizing use of the terminology of criminality, the stacked laws and courts which put – and continue to put – a disproportionate number of Black men, women and children behind bars. The things said by both judges and jurors in cases – not just in the past but as recently as a few years ago – drove home that there is an awful continuity in what goes on in the United States. I also thought about one quote in particular, from Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit: “The good old boys had traded in their white robes for black robes, but it was still a lynching.”

While we were there, we also walked over to its affiliated National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which powerfully pays honor to the memory of men, women and children who were lynched by white people and inexcuseably robbed of their lives. While overwhelmingly taking place in the south, white citizens also lynched Black people in other states as well. Each block, which lists the names and dates of those killed in each county, appears twice, once suspended from above and also laid out side by side, like a multitude of coffins. The latest date I saw was 1948.

Both the museum and the memorial are run by the Equal Justice Initiative, which per its site, works “with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.” They “are committed to changing the narrative about race in America [and] provide legal assistance to innocent death row prisoners, confront abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aid children prosecuted as adults.” What EJI has done is masterfully draw a line from America’s past to its present. In fact, the organizaton’s “Community Remembrance Project…is part of a larger movement to create an era of restorative truth-telling…We work with communities to erect historical markers, organize soil collection ceremonies, and hold essay contests for local high school students to support the development of local, community-led efforts to engage with and discuss past and present issues of racial justice.” This is empowering for those who want to learn from history and to grow.

Because  if anything, history bears witness over and over to the multitude of ways that people dehumanize, subjugate, hurt and kill others. How will that ever change if this is what people do? After I walked through the memorial, I thought about Yad Vashem, which I had visited this summer. It too is a powerful place, bearing witness to the ability of man to carry out inexcusably atrocious acts on other people, based on using “superiority” as justification for ,making these choices.

One way to approach this horrific characteristic of man is to rethink how history is taught. We must teach the bad as well as the good. There is no other way to learn from the past if we are incomplete in what we teach. Perhaps that is why the quote from Maya Angelou, painted on the side of a building in Montgomery, jumped out to me. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

I’ve also contended that we ought to explore how we teach, that is, group historic events not by chronology or place but by the human conditions that give rise to them – and then discuss these issues with students. I also believe that parents and teachers need to be able to teach children how to find value in themselves and not in comparison to others – an internal measuring stick, which I’ve also written about; self-esteem ought not to come from what we have accomplished but from our character, what kind of person we are. And that ought to be connected to treating others the way we would want to be treated.

Yesterday I visited The Equal Justice Initiative’s Museum of Legacy and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice and today I made a donation. I do this not only because I was moved by the museum and the memorial, but also because I value the work that brought the organization to this point. EJI helps people in the present while also empowering communities to take ownership of their past. Thanks to EJI’s work, we can learn from history.

The museum is open from Wednesdays to Sundays. Go.

About the Author
Wendy Kalman, MPA, MA, serves as Director of Education and Advocacy Resources for Hadassah The Women's Zionist Organization of America, Inc. Previous roles include senior academic researcher for an Israel education nonprofit, knowledge manager at a large multinational as well as roles in marketing and publishing in the US and in Israel. She has presented papers at political science and communications conferences and has participated as a scholar-in-residence at an academic workshop on antisemitism. Wendy lived in Israel for over a decade and is a dual citizen, fluent in Hebrew.
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