Re­minder of the past

A visit to the Na­tional Me­mo­rial for Peace and Jus­tice.

The Oklahoman - - FRONT PAGE - BY ERIECH TAPIA

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.

Legacy Mu­seum

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.

[PHOTO BY ERIECH TAPIA, FOR THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

Pa­trons of The Na­tional Me­mo­rial for Peace and Jus­tice are con­fronted with the statue of slaves in chains as they en­ter the me­mo­rial.

[PHOTO BY ERIECH TAPIA, FOR THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

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.

[PHO­TOS BY ERIECH TAPIA, FOR THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.