story and photography by: cathy r. foreman
When the announcement about the opening of the “lynching memorial” and the Legacy Museum came out, I was intrigued. After going to the website to find out a bit more about the museum, I saw jars filled with dirt. I read that the jars were actually filled with soil samples from/near the areas where a lynching was known to have occurred… and it also had the name of the person who had been lynched at that very location. My first thought was, wow that’s pretty deep, but pretty freaking awesome at the same time.
So we arrived at the memorial at 8:45am, and it’s pretty peaceful outside. There are only two other people waiting to go in with us. There’s this huge enclosure that surrounds the memorial; so you can’t see what’s beyond the walls.
Finally it’s 9am and they are ready for visitors. As we make our way through security, the first thing you see as you come out of the darkness is this amazingly beautiful but quite dark sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. The sculpture consists of seven individual people who are all connected literally by the chains of bondage, leading them into a life of slavery. Each piece could totally stand on its own merit as Kwame has taken the time to portray the fear and agony, of which we can only imagine, that our ancestors felt as they are sold, stolen and yanked away from all they knew and loved. Collectively these life-size testaments create a masterpiece that only serves to draw you in as it stirs a range of emotions from shock and awe to anger to denial.
Once you manage to make it past this amazing sculpture, you get a glimpse at the complete memorial which is set atop a hill which from the vantage point of the hilltop looks directly down into the city; a place once known as one of the largest slaves trading posts in the south.
Walking up a slight incline, you only know what you’re coming upon if you’ve done your research. But even then, the photos you’ve seen can’t really prepare you for the heaviness that will surely come over you as you stand face to face with the names of the counties and of the blacks who were lynched, in short, for sport.
At first you’re standing eye to eye with this massive piece of steel etched with the county and slightly below that, a name or in most cases, a list of names and the year in which they were lynched. The counties are alphabetical by state, so it’s only a matter of time before you come against the county where you were born or perhaps later lived … especially if it's in the south. As you continue to walk through, the steel is raised slightly, giving you a much different perspective. When you take a moment to stop and just breathe, you will notice these grey strips running down the sides of the wall. To be honest, I missed them as I was so enamored by the beams themselves. It wasn’t until I sat down, that I saw them. On these strips are reasons, sort of mini-backstories as to why a particular black was lynched. For me the stories only heighted the heaviness of the moment. Again, as you press forward you will notice the beams are raised higher and higher until ultimately they are above your head, ending with a perspective of “the gathering” that we’ve oftentimes seen in lynching photos from the past.
The feeling is quite overwhelming and somber with the sound of the water wall echoing in the background. You want very much to respect the space for what it represents, and as such there are no loud conversations but rather quiet whispers and lots of pondering.
While there are many (too many by any account) counties within our varied states, I was solely searching for North Carolina; specifically my home county of Halifax as well as where I currently reside, Wake. When I tell you the number of beams seemed to go on and on, it is truly not an exaggeration. I’m uncertain if there were 100 (the number of counties in NC), but I feel pretty safe in stating there were at least 50. Imagine: a minimum of 50 beams hanging, representing your home state, listing one, but as many as 15 known and unknown names of documented blacks who were lynched. It is truly something to behold and the curators of this information, these stories and and this memorial have done an outstanding job giving voice to the many souls who were murdered because of their skin color.
For part one of My Alabama Story, click here.