Toxin trouble is nothing new in Montgomery. Known as the cradle of the Confederacy, the city was once the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama. Later, Montgomerians jailed Rosa Parks and bombed Martin Luther King Jr.’s home. Still, EJI purposefully headquartered in the city. Last year, while riots raged over Confederate monuments two states away in Charlottesville, Va., a different type of memorial took shape in Montgomery, one that shows the evils of racial sin. Stevenson points out the problem of romanticizing pockets of the past: He says his goal is “to create a deeper understanding of our history so we understand what’s appropriate to honor and what’s not appropriate to honor.”
The designers of the lynching memorial expect that kind of understanding to come incrementally. Upon entry, visitors encounter the hanging 6-foot monuments at eye level, but as they turn into the next corridor and the next, the columns rise overhead. The effect is meant to convey the scale of terror: “Lynching was gratuitous,” Stevenson says. “They didn’t have to hang people and lift those bodies up, but they did it because they wanted to traumatize and taunt communities of color.”
While the memorial’s design is visually arresting, the entries etched on the columns are not. They’re understated, like the scant 24 characters on the Jones County, Miss., monument that reference the lynching of John Hartfield. To learn Hartfield’s back story, visitors must see exhibits at the 11,000-square-foot Legacy Museum. One of its walls displays a headline from the June 26, 1919, edition of the New Orleans States: “John Hartfield Will Be Lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 O’clock This Afternoon.” Yards away, a jar of soil from Hartfield’s lynching site sits among hundreds of others collected as part of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project. In another spot, videos document the details of Hartfield’s brutal, extrajudicial hanging—the 10,000 spectators, the food vendors, the photo postcards, the souvenir amputated fingers.