Montgomery was a welcome sight after a long day of driving and having found our accommodation with only the most minor of detours, due entirely to the driver not following navigational instruction, it was good to stretch our legs. As sometimes happens we found, tucked behind an unprepossessing strip mall, The Cork and Cleaver – an eatery which proved a pleasant culinary surprise not far from our hotel.
The sole purpose of heading north was to visit The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration www.eji.org Opened just over a year ago, the museum uses technology to chillingly dramatize “the enslavement of African Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in America.”
Our timed entry to the Museum ensured an early start and at 9:30 we were at the doors of what was once a warehouse for the enslaved, a mere block from what had been one of the biggest human auction sites in the country. It stood adjacent to the docks and railroad – convenient for the trafficking of people. Exploring “the history of racial inequality and its relationship to a range of contemporary issues from mass incarceration to police violence” made for uncomfortable viewing. And gave a stark confirmation that racial tensions are still far too high in America, with detention levels of African Americans proportionally higher than for any other race.
Jefferson’s ban in 1808 on importing people as chattels from Africa did not end slavery, many still being smuggled in through Spanish Florida, but rather also lead to the lucrative Domestic Slave Trade – that of selling men, women and children from the northern to the southern states. Montgomery, one time home to the fertile Black Belt, was where plantations owners garnered huge enslaved populations to work the rich soil and to pick cotton – its production increased by the invention of the cotton gin. By 1860, Alabama was one of the two largest slave-owning states in America.
We spent a humbling few hours absorbing just some of the horrors faced not only by the enslaved, but by the humiliation of segregation. One wall was covered with signs common to the Jim Crow years – No Niggers, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans Allowed – No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs – were two that I found particularly offensive.
We blinked as we emerged from the dimmed lights of the museum to the brilliance of the day, sun bouncing off cars in a blistering haze. It made the juxtaposition of what we had seen and what we were about to see even more stark. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a few short blocks from the museum, is built on the crest of a hill overlooking the city. It is dedicated to the legacy of those enslaved, those terrorized by the then ever-present threat of death, those whose dignity was stripped away by segregation. Surrounded by lawns, the memorial has 800 suspended steel columns etched with many names and many ‘unknowns’ denoting the county and state in which the offense took place. Over 4,400 African Americans, including children, over a period of 73 years and only ending in 1950, were murdered – hung, burnt, shot, drowned or beaten – by white mobs. I expected it too to be a chilling place but, like war cemeteries, there was a tranquillity. As if naming names acknowledged the atrocity and allowed the souls of those murdered to be finally being honoured.
We three intrepid travellers left Montgomery glad we had visited. Glad to have faced that which is often left unsaid, and believing every American man, woman and child should at some stage in their life visit both the museum and the memorial because it paves the way for discussions many of us don’t have, and many of us don’t want to have.
Our drive out of the city was quiet as we processed all we had seen. There is, I know, much about my British heritage of which to be ashamed but the legacy of legalised segregation in Britain is not included in the list. I left Montgomery with a profound gratitude that I was not brought up in America – that Africa and Asia gave me my early education in schools filled with people of all colours, ethnicities and religions.
We picked up Interstate 65 and headed south to Mobile. The Malaga Inn, originally built in about 1862 as twin townhouses by two brothers-in-law for their wives, was a peaceful sanctuary after the turmoil of the morning. Like many old homes, the Malaga Inn, also has secrets, along with tunnels possibly used as a hiding place by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The homes remained in the Goldsmiths and Frohlichstein families for many years but from the early 1900s filtered through various owners until the mid 1960’s when the current owner’s family bought and renovated both properties. Two stories were added to the coach house with bedrooms overlooking a courtyard between the two original properties. Profuse with the lingering scent of jasmine and gardenias, pots of colourful geraniums nestle beneath pansies and petunias cascading from baskets hanging from flickering gas lights, the courtyard was a haven of serenity in which to discuss, over a bottle of wine, the questions provoked by the day’s activities.
The morning saw us finishing our coffee, again in the courtyard, before wandering along the banks of the Mobile River where students posed for graduation photographs amidst the flowers and statuary in the park, and to the accompaniment of toots from tugs. Emy also found a knee on which to perch. That of Ervin S Cooper, founder of one of the largest stevedoring companies in the country, and operating in 23 ports.
Before leaving, we learnt that Mobile and not our next destination, New Orleans, is considered the home of Mardi Gras in America. Then taking the road less travelled we meandered along Highway 90, through Pascagoula and Biloxi, marvelling at the Antebellum grandeur lining the shoreline until we found ourselves on Elysian Fields where…..