She had the nerve to speak out in defense of her murdered husband, who lost his life in May 1918 in what was described as a “lynching rampage” carried out by a Brooks County, Georgia, mob. They were hunting for the killer of abusive plantation owner Hampton Smith. Within a week’s time 11 people lost their lives at the hands of this mob. Mary Turner, 21 years old and eight months pregnant, made what the local paper described as “unwise remarks” by publicly objecting to the murder of her husband and stating she wanted to swear out warrants on those responsible.
Angered by her boldness, Turner was hunted down and meted out a ghastly fate. The mob hung her from a tree by her ankles. Then they burned, mutilated and riddled the expectant mother’s body with bullets. Her unborn child would be removed and killed as well.
Jim Crow segregation required the use of such terror, such brutality. From 1877 to 1950 there were more than 4,000 documented racial terror lynchings in the South. Until April of this year, no comprehensive memorial existed to bear witness to the horror and violence these victims endured.
Now, in downtown Montgomery, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, located at 417 Caroline St., and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, at 115 Coosa St., are open to bring the story of Mary Turner and others out of the shadows of history. The long silence and aversion to this subject is a testament to the fact that there is some history we would rather leave buried in the past.
But to truly understand who we were, we must look into the darkness of our past and reckon with it. We must see history not as we want it to have been, but as it was. No matter how ugly, we must confront it.
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration tells a narrative story that begins with slavery in America. The Legacy Museum vividly displays how the long history of slavery cemented notions of racial superiority and the belief in a natural racial hierarchy. Buttressed by what was then considered “science” and also twisted religious dogma, the mistreatment, brutality and injustices inflicted upon blacks were not only tolerated but encouraged.
The narrative continues as The Legacy Museum shows how slavery evolved. In the post-Civil War South slavery may have been legally outlawed, but a de facto type of slavery would take its place. As whites’ anger at having to accept and treat blacks as equals spread throughout the South, so did more extreme measures to put blacks back in what was considered their rightful, subordinate place. As Mississippi Gov. Albert Amos in 1875 declared, “They [blacks] are to be returned to a condition of serfdom, an era of 2nd slavery.”
With the implosion of Reconstruction in 1877, an edifice of racial hierarchy — Jim Crow — soon was erected. Perceived violations of this racial caste system, no matter how minor, were often met with brutal violence. Decades of lynching and racial terrorism would become a major catalyst for the largest internal movement of any ethnic group in American history — The Great Migration. By the mid-1900s an estimated 6 million blacks would flee the South in response to the acutely real racial terror that existed.
The Legacy Museum reveals how, just as slavery evolved, so too would the portrayal of blacks, particularly black men. During slavery, the caricature of black men was one of dumbness, idleness and childlike behavior that required enslaving for his own benefit. However, with the removal of legalized slavery, the caricature became more menacing, more foreboding and more sinister.
This new caricature was very beneficial in that black men, for the most trivial of offenses, increasingly found themselves behind bars and their labor rented out for hire. Known as convict leasing, it met a serious labor shortage and was profitable for plantation owners, businesses and governments alike. So beneficial and profitable was the convict leasing system that by 1898, 73 percent of Alabama’s revenue came from leasing out convicts. It became slavery under another name. The Legacy Museum tells the story of how a mindset and notions of racial characteristics became deeply ingrained and bear fruit to this day.
Sitting atop six acres overlooking the Alabama State Capitol is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also referred to as the Lynching Memorial. It is visually astounding and profound. The memorial was inspired by the Apartheid Memorial in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a walkway that has 800 steel weathered columns hanging from the roof. As you enter the walkway you are at eye level with the columns. But as you make your way down, you eventually end up standing under and looking up at the columns hanging above you. Like those in the black and white archival photos of actual lynchings, one ends up bearing witness to these stunning acts of inhumanity.
Extensive archival research has determined that racial terror lynchings took place in 20 states. But the most active states were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Between 1877 and 1950, 361 documented terror lynchings took place in Alabama, 654 in Mississippi, 590 in Georgia and 549 in Louisiana. As painful as it is, this is a history we should not turn away from.
Gov. Kay Ivey has told us quite often lately that, “We can’t change or erase our history. … To get where we’re going means understanding where we’ve been.” The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice greatly contextualize and fill a void in understanding of who we were and where we’ve been. Of understanding the dangers of being silent to injustice. Of the need to reconcile with our past so we can move to a place of greater understanding and racial reconciliation in the present.
To ignore what’s painful or hurtful is to perpetually delay growth and maturity in the present. Hopefully many will take the needed steps forward by visiting these two places.
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