“I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it,” my husband said as he combed his long blonde hair in our bathroom, “but I know it’s something we’re supposed to see. The kids too.”
I knew exactly what he meant. Going to a museum situated on a site where enslaved people were once warehoused, one focused not only on the evils of slavery and Jim Crow but also the egregious modern-day sin of mass incarceration, isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a good time. However, I had been wanting to make the two-hour drive to Montgomery to visit it, so when a friend asked if I would go with her, my entire family got dressed up and hopped in the truck.
The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both created and managed by the amazing team at the Equal Justice Initiative, puts visitors through the emotional wringer in a number of ways. You begin by walking through a darkened hallway lined with cells on one side. In each, there is a holographic projection of an actor playing a slave, telling his or her story through the bars, each one of them heartbreaking and painful.
After that, you enter a large space divided into the three sections I mentioned earlier—slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration—and every square inch of the room is covered in something to see and experience. There is plenty of text for people, like me, who like to take in information via written words. However, there were also many videos, photographs, and interactive exhibits there for people, like my sons, who preferred a more visual and hands-on experience.
We were all taken aback by different things. For me, it was the sight of a young boy standing on a milk crate being fingerprinted by a uniformed police officer. He wasn’t even tall enough to reach the counter, but that didn’t stop law enforcement from booking him for marijuana possession and tossing him into the “criminal justice system.” I gasped the first time I saw the image, and every time it came back around in the scroll on a high-def screen, I felt the shock all over again. It never got any easier to see, and I think that’s a very good thing.
For my husband, it was a letter written to the EJI by a person experiencing incarceration, asking for help with his case. At the end of the letter, which is written in a childish, uneven script, is a drawing that looks like it was created by someone younger than either of our sons. After reading the letter and looking at the art for a long time, my husband had to take a moment to sit down and breathe.
My sons kept coming back to a wall packed with jars of dirt—each one filled with soil from a spot where a confirmed lynching had taken place. There are many different types of earth present on that wall, each of them a different color and texture, but all of them represented the same painful fact. Someone died atop this soil. Their blood wetted it as they were hoisted up a tree, tortured, and unceremoniously cut down.
I found myself spending more time in the newer areas of the exhibit, looking through articles and exhibits that were new to me. However, the main reason I wanted to make the trip to Montgomery in the first place was to see what had happened in Greene County, Arkansas—my birthplace. I wanted to know what had taken place there, specifically in my hometown. According to some research I’ve done, Paragould was a “Sundown Town,” meaning that black travelers and visitors were told to “leave town by sundown” lest they be killed by some upstanding white citizens. And the black population was violently expelled multiple times between 1888 and 1908.
Growing up there, I don’t remember ever seeing a black person in town, and with good reason. According to the site linked above, “Economic boycott has kept many African Americans out of sundown towns. As motel owner Nick Khan said about Paragould in 2002, ‘If black people come in, they will find that they’re not welcome here. No one will hire them.’”
You read that right, folks—2002. Two years into the new millennium, racism was still alive and well in the little hardscrabble patch of earth I once called home. It still is.
I knew my home city and county weren’t innocent when it came to racism and racist actions, but I couldn’t find any stories about lynchings that had taken place there. And one of the main reasons I wanted to visit the museum and memorial was to see if I could discover more information.
Inside the museum (where photography is prohibited) I found one want ad in a post-Civil War newspaper written by a woman named Pleasant Beale in Paragould, Arkansas. She was looking for her mother, father, brother, and uncle—all of whom were lost to her after she was sold to a man named John A. Beale in Alabama. If I was going to find anything substantive, it was going to be at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is a five-minute drive from the museum.
According to the NAACP, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States between 1882 and 1968. The Equal Justice Initiative maintains a different count, but it is quite likely that both are incorrect since historians believe the true number is underreported. However, the EJI is committed to fostering discussion about this very uncomfortable topic, bringing secrets to light, and giving families and communities a better sense of who they are and how they can be better.
According to the memorial’s website, “The site includes a memorial square with 800 six-foot monuments to symbolize thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place. The memorial structure on the center of the site is constructed of over 800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.”
Since photography was permitted at the memorial, I can show you some images I captured that day. The steel monuments resemble coffins, and the county and state each represents is engraved on both the front and the bottom so it can be read regardless of where it is displayed. In one part of the monument, the boxes are hung from metal poles. At the topmost level, it is easy to read the names and dates since you are at eye level with them. However, as you walk down, the steel boxes are seemingly pulled up into the air like a lynching victim, and by the end, they are hanging well over your head—twenty or so feet in the air. It’s an overwhelming sight. You can feel the names above your head, even if you can’t read them, and the weight of all that happened sits on your heart like a lead weight.
I couldn’t find a steel box with Greene County on it, but I thought perhaps it was hanging in one of the higher reaches of the monument and I had just missed it. However, to the right of the monument, identical steel boxes to those hanging on display lay flat on the earth, row upon row. I walked through the Arkansas section slowly, both hoping I wouldn’t find something and longing to finally have my answer written in steel.
I got the former. Greene County has no lynchings on record according to the EJI. However, according to their research, a mass lynching of 24 men, women, and children occurred in March of 1866 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas (about a three-hour drive away from Paragould). I saw jars bearing the names of those victims on the wall my sons were so obsessed with in the museum.
I don’t know what I felt standing there, looking at the space where Greene County should have been. It certainly wasn’t relief. Just because I couldn’t find evidence doesn’t mean such evil didn’t happen in my hometown. It’s likely buried somewhere in an overgrown forest glade, under the large tree in the town square, or perhaps in the hearts of the town’s oldest living residents, those who knew about or perhaps even witnessed what took place.
I may never know what happened, but that doesn’t absolve me, my family, or any of the other white residents who called Paragould home then (or now) of guilt. We are obligated to look and to ask because it’s only when we’re willing to be truthful about the places we call home that any kind of healing can occur—for either the victims or the perpetrators. It’s time to get past the lies and half-truths, to stop pushing what we’d rather not admit under the rug. It’s time to have an honest conversation about our country’s history when it comes to race. We’ve let those sleeping dogs lie for far too long.