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New Museum Connects History of Slavery to Mass Incarceration

A rendering of the museum (Credit: Equal Justice Initiative)

A new museum in Montgomery, Alabama, will connect the history of African-American enslavement in the U.S. to modern-day issues of mass incarceration and police violence. The Equal Justice Initiative, which litigates on behalf of prisoners denied fair and equal treatment, also unveiled designs for the nation’s first memorial to commemorate the victims of lynching, a design that seeks to spread awareness beyond its own walls.

Last year the nonprofit released a report documenting more than 4,000 lynchings of black people in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950. At the memorial, their names will be engraved on over 800 concrete columns representing each county where lynchings took place. According to a rendering, from a distance, the memorial looks like any other classical structure: rows of columns supporting a square building with a central plaza. But the columns are in fact floating, hanging from the ceiling, in a visceral invocation of lynching’s terror. As a visitor walks around the square, the floor drops farther and farther. In the center of the building’s plaza is a hill, where, according to an accompanying video, “as we stand upon it, the experience of the gallows is inverted and the living stand in judgment by the dead.”

Surrounding the memorial structure will be a park containing duplicates of each of the columns, until the counties they represent claim and permanently install them in the places where lynchings took place. The Equal Justice Initiative says the concept is to counter the prevalence of memorials to the confederacy with markers commemorating the victims of slavery, segregation and racism. The memorial is being designed in partnership with MASS Design Group, an architectural firm based in Boston.

The museum is located on the site of a former slave warehouse in Montgomery, midway between a slave auction block and a train station where slaves were trafficked, and is expected to open in April. In addition to housing the nation’s most comprehensive collection of data on lynching, it will host exhibitions connecting that history to the contemporary toll of mass incarceration and police brutality on the lives of black and brown people. According to the NAACP, black people are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white people. One in six black men had been incarcerated during their lifetime as of 2001, and the NAACP estimates that number is closer to one in three today.

Interactive design agency Local Projects will partner with the Equal Justice Initiative to design the museum, which will also house interactive films and artifacts of the history of race in the U.S.