Montgomery, Alabama, seems such an unlikely spot for a recognition of our country’s relationship with African Americans. So the news that Montgomery is now host to an installation dedicated to the legacy of slavery and lynching in America came as quite a surprise and made the desire for a visit irresistible.
Montgomery is a town of ghosts. Not a ghost town, like Selma has become, the Alabama state bureaucracy insures the city’s survival. But phantoms lurk everywhere in the city. And now after ignoring its ghosts for decades, Montgomery has begun to bring them into the light.
The town rose to prominence after 1830 as a center of the domestic slave trade. A slave market functioned at the spot now occupied by the city-landmark Court Street Fountain, a location contiguous to both the river port and the railroad. Several warehouses, recently repurposed for retail purposes, once served as slave “depots,” a term that unnaturally sanitizes what were barracoons for human cargo. Alongside the depots stood buildings occupied by the slavers’ financiers, among them Lehman Brothers, now a ghost itself.
Relics of the Civil War, whose fury scarcely touched Alabama, stand prominently in downtown Montgomery. The Confederate “white house,” where Jefferson Davis took his oath of office and where Robert E. Lee’s birthday is celebrated annually, functions as a museum documenting antebellum life. The nearby Winter Building is now occupied by a law firm, Balch and Bingham, but it once housed the Southern Telegraph Company from which the Confederate Secretary of War telegraphed the order to fire on Fort Sumpter.
Jim Crow cast a long shadow over Montgomery. Its legacy is only now being recognized. The recently restored S.H. Kress building provides insights into the separate facilities afforded black and white citizens throughout the South. An elaborate facade on building’s Dexter Avenue side welcomed white patrons to the store; African Americans came in the back entrance from Monroe Street and were funneled into the basement. But nothing documents segregation policies more graphically than the restored building’s engraved marble slab that once proscribed the use of water fountains by “White” and “Colored.”
Montgomery figured prominently in the Civil Rights movement. On Dexter Avenue-- heels pointing toward the Alabama River-- toes pointing toward the State Capitol, enormous brass footprints serve as monuments to the marches that African Americans undertook to abolish Jim Crow. A walk in the direction that the toes point passes the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. led services from 1954 to 1960, and ends at the capitol steps that George Wallace refused to make available as a podium for Dr. King’s speech that kicked off the march to Selma in 1965.
My wife and I made a trip to Montgomery last month to visit the much-publicized National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Unaware of the memorial until it was reviewed in the New York Times, we wanted to see what seemed to us glorious monument in an unlikely place. (We found that the Memorial was not so well known in Alabama.) The installation approaches the legacy of white supremacy with powerful images that remind visitors of the twin horrors of the African American experience, slavery and lynching. Slavery finds its most poignant expression in statuary. At the entrance a group of five figures enchained appears: male and female, old and young; such fear, such defiance. Further on an array of 800 rust clad metal cubes— coten steel according to the Memorial’s web site-- suspend from the ceiling of a huge veranda. Each cube represents a county in the United States where a documented lynching took place. Each county is incised with names of the victims, more than 4,000. (My boyhood home, Cross County, Arkansas, has a cube with two names.)
We learned from one of the docents, a young African American man from Pittsburgh, that museum executives have invited each county represented in a hanging cube to take possession of the duplicate that lies like a grave marker on the grounds of the Memorial. To date only a single county, one in Minnesota, has expressed interest.
Ghosts still lie under Montgomery’s soil, but they are coming to life.