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National Memorial for Peace and Justice

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is located about a 15-minute walk away from the Legacy Museum. It’s really pretty from the outside with beautifully landscaped plant beds and a brown wood fence surrounding the Memorial. At the time that I visited, the Memorial had just opened so they were still working on finishing up the landscaping.

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Beyond the ticket counter, there’s a collection of about four sculptures that I thought were amazing. The first one that I came across featured four or five slaves who are chained together. Each one of the people chained to the other features a different facial expression and in my interpretation different archetypes from the history of slavery.

Some of the figures are lunging and look like they’re trying to break out of their chains or break free from their chains. There’s one with a mother and her baby in chains. The sculptures are really moving not just because of the context but also because the artist was able to capture the facial features in very great detail. The sculptures are so realistic that they look like they’d spring to life.

After making your way around the outer courtyard you enter the National Memorial for Peace and Justice proper. The building is kind of see through because there aren’t any walls around the sides. It’s important to note that this isn’t a memorial to lynching but rather a memorial to those who lost their lives to lynching. So the focus is on those who lost their lives rather than those who participated in lynchings. The Memorial features hundreds of huge steel blocks. When you first walk in there are metal holders on the ground that hold the blocks in place. Each block lists a county name, the name(s) or people lynched in the county, and where possible the dates of when the victims were lynched.

It’s not quite overwhelming but you start feeling some kind of way. I can’t think of what the proper word would be to explain what it feels like to stand in this building. It doesn’t go on for miles or anything like that but it’s a fair-sized building and as far as your eyes can see there are these steel blocks. And each one of those blocks is a memorial to at least one person that was lynched. Some of the blocks have one or two names on them but others have like 20 names. And I couldn’t help but think, “well what happened here? What might have led to all of these people being murdered on the same day at the same time or within a few days of each other?” And for some counties over the span of several years, you see name after name of multiple people who had been lynched in that one location.

When you first enter the blocks are down on the ground but when you move through the hallways, they start rising until they’re hanging from the ceiling. Up off the ground, they’re representative of people having been lynched. Walking through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice you have to lift your head up to read the blocks once they’re up off the ground. I was kind of annoyed by this after a little while which I guess is sort of the point. You end up having to crane your neck to look up at the blocks and it feels never-ending. There are many blocks and some are close together which made them hard to read. I skipped over some of them because I was like, “I just can’t with this.”

After walking through and looking at the blocks for a while, your neck starts to get tired. And it’s like, “how much more of this am I gonna have to walk through?” But, that’s the point, isn’t it? These are people that lost their lives and that’s not to say they were all hanged but they were all murdered outside of the judicial system.

You walk through and there’s a visual representation of the loss of life but then it’s also like a physical representation because you crane your neck to look at all of these blocks. And you wonder how much more can there possibly be because your neck is killing you. And that’s when it hits you, “Oh YOUR neck is tired is it?” Now just imagine if this happened to you and what that experience might have been like for them.

It’s an experience.

I’d read about lynchings before in books about Ida B. Wells and At the Hands of Persons Unknown. But it was something different to walk through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and crane your neck to look at all of these blocks knowing that each one of them represented the loss of at least one person’s life. Someone that had a far worse fate than your neck being uncomfortable neck for a few minutes.

There were wall signs connected to some of the blocks that explain the reasons these people were lynched. To be clear, if a person is accused of committing a crime, then if convicted, they deserve to be punished. Yet, not in this way. But, when you read some of the accusations they’re ridiculous.

The reasons for some of these people being murdered are basically someone feeling disrespected or like the person was acting out of their place or some other trivial reason. Many of them are situations where you probably couldn’t even take the person to court because it’s not a crime. The victim might have just done something to irritate or upset someone else in some way. In some of the cases, petty crimes were committed but they aren’t a reason for the death penalty. Walking through that section of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a bit much and made me angry.

At around the middle of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there is this structure that are like steps and seats. Across from that, there’s a water feature that runs over an inscription dedicated to the memory of the people that lost their lives through lynchings. It’s really beautiful and I felt it was a very nice touch in what’s a rather somber environment. You have this building that’s about something so ugly and inhumane. But then within that building, there’s this beautiful space that acknowledges the loss of these people’s lives.

When you reach this point, the room actually opens up and you don’t feel quite so closed in. Most of the space is actually open but because of the hanging blocks it feels a little bit closed in and dark at some points. Yet when you walk into that area it feels more open and as though the ceiling is a bit higher. With the feeling of more open space, you can take a breath.

When you get to the end of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice the blocks repeat themselves. The very same work that you saw inside is duplicated in the rear courtyard. Each one of the outside blocks is lying on its side next to another block and it’s the same thing where they’re organized by county. The explanation that I heard from an interview, is that the intent is for each one of the counties where these lynchings took place to eventually come and claim their block. Essentially claiming the role that their county played in this history.

I think this is a pretty interesting concept. I’ve been to a few museums recently where they’re sort of living museums. Things are brought in and taken out over time so the experience of going through the museum sort of changes as it’s this ever-evolving thing.

They don’t necessarily have new exhibits moving in and out. But in the instance of the Memorial, if you go back five years later and some counties have claimed their blocks, there would be less of those blocks out in the courtyard. You’d have a different experience several years from now versus the experience of having visited immediately after the opening. It gives you a reason to go back and revisit the Memorial.

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At the Hands of Persons Unknown [Book Review]
The Legacy Museum [Coming Soon]
A Sword Among Lions [Coming Soon]
The Assassination of Fred Hampton [Book Review]

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