The decidedly varied paths that led them to the present, starting with slaves brought from Africa to the U.S. and the Caribbean, and the brutal experiences they endured, merge on somewhat common ground in themes displayed by the “The National Memorial for Peace and Justice” and “The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration”, located in downtown Montgomery.
“Absolutely,” explained Tom Paine, an American from the state of Washington as he visited both sites last month.
“It wasn’t just an individual who was bad. There was an entire system to be able to be multi-national like that. Many companies involved, many individuals involved in slavery. All these people.”
The end result, Paine added, was that people of color in the U.S. and Caribbean suffered similar horrific fates.
“It was just terrible,” he said.
That haunting reminder is provided in graphic detail at both sites. Visitors entering the outdoor memorial are greeted by a statue of slaves bound in chains, including a mother with a young child. The art is stunning, with the anguish and fear etched on their faces. On the nearby wall, the history of slavery and post-slavery life is documented.
“In the 17th and 18th century, 12 million African people were kidnapped, chained, and brought to the Americas after a torturous journey across the Atlantic Ocean,” it states. “Nearly two million people died during the voyage.”
It was chilling, but only the beginning. Over six acres of land, the memorial, like the museum built by the Montgomery-based non-profit organization Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) through private contributions, offers a shocking reminder that the horrors didn’t end with the abolition of slavery. The sea of huge rust-colored steel blocks or plates - some rooted to the ground, others hanging from the ceiling - with names, places and dates when people of color were lynched, rams home that point. Photographs and samplings of the reasons for those lynchings, framed with timelines indicating it wasn’t so long ago, are detailed on plaques hoisted on the memorial’s walls.
“Lacy Mitchell was lynched in Thomasville, Georgia in 1930 for testifying against a white man accused of raping a black woman.”
“Henry Patterson was lynched in Labelle, Florida, in 1926 for asking a white woman for a drink of water.”
“Mack Brown was lynched in Fulton County, Georgia, in 1936 for kissing white woman on the hand.”
“Otis Price was lynched in Perry, Florida, in 1938 for walking past a window while a white woman was inside bathing.”
It’s a stunning reminder of the brutality and the acceptance - even normalcy - of that brutality. The numbers are staggering. More than 4,300 lynchings were documented in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950. They occurred mostly in a dozen states in the American South, but were also known to happen elsewhere. Many went unreported.
Lynchings were the way for whites to exert dominance over blacks, through fear and terror, especially post-slavery. Yet in the memorial, it is the victims who are honored. The names, dates and places elevate them from the ranks of mere numbers.
The message is not lost on Caribbean nationals. They agree the horrors of slavery have left a significant mark on people of African descent. It’s that common ground. However, the degree of impact is still being debated. Some argue the experiences were not the same for slavery’s victims in the U.S. and the Caribbean. Yet no one doubts the horrors suffered by both.
“It’s difficult to put into words,” said Heather, a Barbadian who visited the memorial and museum last month. “Because their (African American) experience is not our (Caribbean) experience. But it still touches you. It saddens you, what has happened and continues to happen to this day.
“But it’s a very emotional kind of feeling to go through and see what they have gone through over the years.”
That feeling intensifies with the journey from the memorial to the museum, a few blocks away. It is a different experience. The raw charge of the memorial gives way to the museum’s more modernized look. Sophisticated graphics, videos, soundtracks, photographs and interactive displays highlight the continuous arduous journey of colored people in America.
However, the message appears the same: Incarceration is another way for blacks to be subjugated.
The U.S. has locked up more people than any other nation. An overwhelming number of those are of color and poor. Since 1972, the jailed or imprisoned have moved from less than 200,000 to more than two million, with the surge occurring right around the time the U.S. declared a war on crime, which coincidentally - many say not - meant more people of color were locked up.
The Caribbean population is made up overwhelmingly of people of color. Therefore, they would make up the majority of those incarcerated as well. But the stunning parallel is that it’s the poor that usually get locked up. That’s not gone unnoticed, even as the differences still linger.
“Yeah, right,” said Heather, who acknowledged that Barbados was largely spared the same slavery experience as other Caribbean nations.
“… After slavery we (Caribbean people) were more on our own. But for the American, it was different after slavery, because, I mean, to this day they (African Americans) don’t consider themselves as free and I know a lot of American people who tell me that, personally. They don’t feel a part of this country.”
Ironically, that may be the strongest thread that binds African Americans with Caribbean nationals. An increasing number people now question the wisdom of leaving the region for the U.S. in the current political climate. That thread, underlined in two new exhibits here, may be getting even stronger.
Still, many whites, including Paine, showed up at the memorial and museum. It’s an indication that more people are open to the discussion. The brutality of slavery and its aftermath left an indelible mark on people of color. The sites here are exposing it to others.
Meanwhile, some visitors, while understanding the sites’ revelations are mostly from the past, are nervously witnessing signs that indicate the past has not been buried with the dead. Newnan, for example, a town just over 120 miles from Montgomery, in 2018 hosted a rally by the Ku Klux Klan, the group responsible for untold numbers of lynchings.
“It is just shocking, what human beings are capable of,” said Paine, a chaplain.
“It’s horrible and I don’t just think this is in our past. I think we are capable of it in the present and we have to be very mindful.”