What does remembrance look like? As an archivist, special collections manager and lover of history, a large part of remembrance for me is representation. This and other similar threads are constantly a part of how I think about the work we do at the Brooklyn Collection. Who are we representing? Who has enough, and who does not? I ask this every time I think about a possible donation or addition to our collection. Our current climate and the awakening being experienced by others around Black life and its importance (it is), how history is repeating itself and the renewed calls to remove statues and markers erected to memorialize individuals and events who were on the wrong side of history, makes me think even more about this.
In early March, right before the Covid-19 pandemic erupted in earnest in New York City, a group of staff from the Brooklyn Public Library went on an informational and inspirational visit to Montgomery Alabama, with the intention of exploring these questions and to gain immersive knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement. Our other important purpose was to take a deep look at how memorials can be created in a holistic way; to serve as both a reminder, a space to inform and a way to honor the people and events that are connected to that place.
Brooklyn Public Library is embarking on a significant and much needed, overhaul of the New Lots branch, located in East New York. In addition to upgrades that will reshape and modernize the physical space, the renovation will also highlight the historic significance of the library which is located on a once unacknowledged African burial ground, containing the remains of enslaved and free African people.
The burial ground-located on Livonia Avenue between Barbey Street and Schenck Avenue-was brought back into our consciousness in 2010. Officials in the process of renovating nearby Schenck park, did some research and found “burying ground” and "old cemetery" listed in historical maps. Further studies confirmed where the boundaries lay. The area, originally the home of the Canarsee Native Americans, was settled on by Dutch colonizers from the late 1600’s and still bears the names of these colonists in the form of street names, both in this neighborhood and throughout Brooklyn at large. Bergen, Van Brunt, Lefferts and Schenck are all familiar to most Brooklynites, and effectively function as memorials for these Dutch settlers who also held enslaved Africans as property.
Community activists and political leaders, rallied the city to create a landmark. In 2013, the area was officially recognized as the African Burial Ground Square, with a ceremony and all the honor that befitted it. This act was a great first step to correct the erasure of the burial ground and of the enslaved and free people interred there. Further steps would be to find other ways to honor the connection to the community, to educate Brooklynites about this part of the borough’s history and to create other ways and spaces to memorialize those who were forgotten. This is also what led us to Montgomery Alabama.
Alabama’s history has very few similarities to that of Brooklyn. It was one of the largest slaveholding states in the country and was among the first 6 states to secede to the confederacy, which was also established in Montgomery. Jefferson Davis, the first president of the confederate states, was inaugurated in the Montgomery state capitol, which still stands today. The city is also considered by many to be “the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement” and that dual (and opposing) history and their representations, are highly visible. In fact, the great seal that can still be seen in many public buildings in Montgomery is inscribed: “Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, Cradle of the confederacy.”
Our trip to Alabama was a whirlwind of places, people, and emotions. We arrived amid the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday-where civil rights marchers were attacked while crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge-as well as on the eve of democratic primaries for several southern States. A few folks from our group were fortunate enough to go to Selma to walk across the bridge themselves, while learning about the history of Edmund Pettus who was a confederate general and leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, another example of the skewed nature of memorialization, and representations of American history.
It was impossible to walk through Montgomery without a physical reminder of some aspect of its history. On our first day we walked past the Court Square fountain, that was also the auction block and market where you could purchase an enslaved person, livestock or a bale of cotton.
Dexter Avenue starts near the fountain and leads to the Alabama State Capitol, the same Capitol where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederate States, and where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King ended the historic Selma to Montgomery march. It is also the street address for King's Dexter Avenue Church. The way sites relate to these opposing elements of Montgomery history, gives anyone who experiences it, no choice but to acknowledge it. It made us all pause and take stock of everything around us, so as not to miss any details.
Monuments in Montgomery are represented in the form of actual places where historical events happened as well as built spaces that required thoughtful, intentional planning about the subject matter and the people they represent.
The Rosa Parks museum is a part of Troy University's satellite site in Montgomery. It's located near the bus stop where she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. The university bought the land near the site with the intent to turn it into a parking garage, but officials noticed that visitors would stop to read the marker about her arrest.
The University decided that the corner was too historically significant for a parking deck and started to think on how they could honor Parks while also serving their students. They built a museum and library that opened on December 1st, 2000; the 45th anniversary of Rosa Parks arrest.
Another active memorial is the Greyhound bus station where 19 Freedom riders, both Black and White were attacked by a White mob. The riders, in acts of defiance, would ride buses through the South to oppose segregation laws.
Now Congressman John Lewis and other members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led the ride from Washington to New Orleans and were met with violence in Montgomery.
Dr. Martin Luther King's home in Montgomery has also been maintained and serves as a museum. The Dexter avenue church that he led as a young pastor still stands as well.
The Dexter Parsonage house, as it's formally known, was his residence while he preached at the church. The house was bombed in 1965, while he was away preaching at the First Baptist Church. His wife and infant daughter were in the home at the time, but were unharmed.
Built memorials in Montgomery are equally important and relevant to it’s history. Deliberately created to honor those who were unnamed, or not in the consciousness of the average American, and to tell the stories of African Americans who suffered unthinkable horrors, often while exhibiting exceptional bravery.
Among the sites, is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights memorial and center, which was the nation's first built memorial to the martyrs of the civil rights movement. The circular granite water table features the names of 40 people from all walks of life who were killed as acts of terror against Black people.
Some of the more well known, recently built memorials in Montgomery have been projects spearheaded by The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization led by public interest lawyer, Bryan Stevenson. These sites were some of the most impressive, community oriented and heartbreaking built memorials we witnessed in Montgomery.
EJI’s mission is to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenge racial and economic injustice, and to protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society. The memorials built by EJI highlights one of the most macabre aspects of American history, and a historical scourge to African American families-the heinous act of lynching.
To help tell the stories of racial and civil injustice, Bryan Stevenson and EJI conceptualized and created 4 distinct spaces: The Legacy Museum, Legacy Pavilion, Peace and Justice Memorial Center, and the open air, pastoral, National museum for Peace and Justice (referred to colloquially, and incorrectly as the “lynching museum”.)
Each of these 4 sites offered balance and a breadth of information while highlighting a challenging subject. It gave us all an education of what memorialization can look like if we dug deep and reflected in truth.
The Legacy Museum gave us a view of the path American justice took from enslavement and mass incarceration. It is housed in a former warehouse that held enslaved Black people, between the Montgomery waterfront, rail station, and a few short blocks from Court Square. The museum features a mix of interactive multimedia pieces, including a database to track lynching events around the country, video interviews with civil rights leaders and activists, installations that gives visitors a glimpse of the life of the incarcerated and in-depth information about the inequalities that exist in African American communities and what led to them.
The Legacy Pavilion memorial was built to honor families that were victims of lynching and the labor of highly skilled enslaved people. It features an outdoor water sculpture that represents a family.
A plaque on the memory garden, built from the bricks made from the labor of enslaved masons.
The Peace and Justice memorial center is adjacent to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and recognizes the 24 men and women who were lynched or killed in racially motivated attacks during the 1950s. Based on their research, EJI has documented the period between 1877 and 1950 to be the most active era for racial motivated lynching’s, however, they acknowledge it continued past that period. This fact and the idea that there may be unaccounted lynching’s happening today, should encourage us to reflect on this not so distant history and to be vigilant in investigating the disturbing stories that are currently emerging.
One of the most visually moving aspects of the Memorial center is its wall of jars of collected soil, part of EJI’s Community Soil collection project, one of the ways they engage with the communities and part of the larger Community Remembrance project. Using the research conducted by EJI on lynching, community partners work with community members to gather soil from places where a lynching occurred, and to erect markers to signify the spot. They also assisted with this work in Montgomery, placing markers on sites that were historically significant to the Black community.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a six-acre open air sculpture garden, located on a small hilltop that overlooks the city of Montgomery, built to honor the lives of over 4000 African American men, women and children that were lynched and murdered by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. These lives are represented by 800 weathered steel pillars, one for each county where a lynching or racial terror event took place. If known, the names and date of death are engraved on the pillars.
As you walk among the sculptures it is impossible to shake the weight of what you feel. Seeing the names of the victims and where they live, gives the viewer a sense of familiarity; you start to “know” these victims and connect with their humanity, you mourn them.
Despite the heaviness, the memorial is peaceful, reflective and has places to uplift and encourage, providing balance and a bit of inspiration.
Our final stop in Montgomery was a visit to the Juliette Hampton Morgan Memorial library, (because librarians love all libraries, not just our own!)
The library was renamed in honor of librarian and civil rights activist Juliette Hampton Morgan, who used her privilege and wrote letters to speak out against the mistreatment of Black people in Montgomery she witnessed. She became a target for her views on race, was harassed by members of her community and had a cross burned in her yard. She tragically took her own life.
The library was an example of another type of memorial, neither actual nor built, but co-opted. It was also interesting because it was renamed to honor a civil rights activist and librarian, but within its walls contained a place that honors the confederacy, the other part of Montgomery’s history. In the past, the building also housed another Montgomery institution, and as a result, the library inherited a wall, affixed with an engraved memorial, dedicated to “those who served with honor and courage, the confederate states of America”.
It was quite a jarring thing to see, and conversations with the staff there also reflected that feeling. They expressed wanting to find a way to make it less prominent, but also admitted that many groups still dedicated to the confederacy, used the space for meetings, and others come in to view or to trace the engraved names of their relatives or people they admired, on the marble wall. This dichotomy is often a challenge for librarians everywhere.
Montgomery's history feels like it is seeped into every aspect of the city, which is unsurprising considered all that transpired there. When I think about Brooklyn's history, and how it is held by its long-time residents, or people who call it home, I also get that feeling. The stories of the Battle of Brooklyn, the Dodgers (and their still stinging departure), Walt Whitman, Henry Ward Beecher and the remaining allure of the Dutch houses that populated the borough. They are all wonderful stories but are unfortunately, woefully one sided; with years of uncorrected erasure.
Seeing the work being done by a few to identify spaces, challenge narratives and create balance is inspiring and should be more prevalent, especially in a place like Brooklyn, with our large mix of cultures, stories and people. Our history is happening every day. How can we tell these stories and create spaces to honor those who have been pushed out of collective memories? It's a question we should all ask ourselves, now more than ever.
We left Montgomery with a renewed sense of the importance of creating a space to honor the enslaved and free Africans interred in the New Lots African burial ground. There is so much erasure, both intentional and collateral for the lives of the enslaved and Black lives at large, they deserve acknowledgement, and for us to learn about their experiences and triumphs. We hope to fulfill those goals, for them and the New Lots community.
The March Continues...
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