Reminder of the past
A visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
MONTGOMERY, ALA. — It was supposed to be a trip to learn more about lynching in the South, but it turned out that Oklahoma was just as much a part of the racial killings during its dark past.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice last year opened a memorial to honor the lives of people who had been lynched, confronting a time when black people were being hung for petty crimes across the nation with no due process. Mobs of white men would take the law into their own hands.
I visited the 6-acre outdoor memorial last month. It is filled with grim reminders of thousands of people who were lynched. The main structure includes 800 6-foot steel boxes with the names of those who were lynched and the county and state where it occurred.
After entering through a high concrete wall that made you feel separated, I entered a quiet place with green grass, but looking me in the eyes was the scene of chained slaves. The sculptor even captured the desperation in their eyes.
I felt a pain in my heart, not a sadness, as I asked myself, "Why did this happen?"
Winding my way through the zigzagged pathway, I came upon steel boxes. They were all suspended off the floor, each representing a lynching. There were so many!
As I walked into a covered portion of the museum, the floor started to go into the ground while the boxes started to hang over me, their shadows hovering.
The museum did a remembrance water wall that filled the area with the sound of a stream to represent victims who went unrecorded. It was nice to see they were not forgotten.
Outside of the covered portion, there's a field of identical boxes, placed there to be retrieved by the counties in which the lynchings occurred. A museum guide said those counties could collect their box for educational displays in their state. Four of the boxes represented counties in Oklahoma — Tulsa, Okfuskee, Wagoner and McCurtain counties — and one for the state.
After finishing my tour of the memorial, I drove over to The Legacy Museum, which is in a former warehouse for imprisoned slaves in the middle of downtown Montgomery. It is full of pictures, stories and amazing animations that give a glimpse of what occurred to black people before the Civil Rights movement.
As I walked into the dimly lit portion of the museum, which turned out to be a jail for slaves, a quote on a screen caught my attention: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” by Abraham Lincoln.
There were multiple cells each with a hologram of a slave talking to you. I moved along and stood in front of each and listened to their stories. Then an operatic voice caught my ear from one of the cells.
The women in tattered clothes kept singing, “Lord come here,” and “I wish I was never born.”
More sadness permeated the air.
Everybody in the museum was quiet, as they shuffled in front of a wall with facts and images. One caught my eye — a picture of a bridge with about 40 white men waving and standing there with a black mother and her son being hung from it.
The caption stated the photo was taken in Okfuskee County, OK.
The picture was of Laura and her son L.D. Nelson, who had been taken out of the Okemah jail by a white mob and hung from the bridge on the North Canadian River just outside of town.
I've heard of the hanging tree in Tulsa, along with the race riots, but had never fully understood what lynching was.
I don’t remember being taught about this aspect of history in school, even though I grew up right outside of Tulsa in a town where Ku Klux Klan members once came to my house, passing out fliers, promoting their organization.
Understanding and accepting our history is not always easy, but this trip taught me about a dark stain in our country's past that hopefully we will never go back to. Lynchings were a way to get around the judicial system. They were hate crimes.
At the end of my two tours, I questioned whether I still believe that we treat all people as if they are created equal.
Patrons of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice are confronted with the statue of slaves in chains as they enter the memorial.
Outside of the memorial sits a field with unclaimed steel boxes with the names of individuals lynched in counties across the United States. This Tulsa County box and the others are meant to be claimed by their respective counties and states.
A statue of a black man holding his hands in the air is seen with the former Catoma Street Church of Christ in the background. The sculpture is representative of the current struggles in the black community with the police.
Hanging over patrons are steel boxes with the names of individuals lynched in counties across the nation.
Outside of the memorial sits a field with unclaimed steel boxes with the names of individuals lynched in counties across the United States. The boxes are meant to be claimed by their respective counties and states.
A statue of a slave in chains.