By Gino Nuzzolillo, ’20

As I exited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, this past Saturday, a friend texted me to ask about my trip and my thoughts on what I had seen the past week. Immediately, I responded, “You have to make the pilgrimage here.” Pilgrimage, usually defined as a journey to a sacred location, felt like the most apt word to describe my trip to Alabama.

Amidst the excitement over the last day of classes, members of the ACRE-Duke partnership and I made the 10-hour trip to Montgomery to attend both the Peace and Justice Summit and the openings of the Legacy Museum and Memorial. The local non-profit law firm Equal Justice Initiative, which represents the wrongly convicted and individuals on death row, organized the Summit, Museum, and Memorial to document the history of lynching of African-Americans in the South from the 1860s-1950. Their mission over the course of last week was to begin to expose America to its brutal past in order to better understand injustices in the present, and move forward with a full acknowledgement of our common history. For me, EJI succeeded – confronting slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and different manifestations of racism whether they be in the environment or public housing left me emotionally drained but more sure of the significance of the ACRE-Duke partnership’s work.

I found the Legacy Museum particularly striking. Housed in a former warehouse for slaves in the heart of Montgomery, it documents the story of slavery to mass incarceration in devastating and beautiful ways. Projections of slaves speaking through bars or modern-day people in prisons speaking through a jail phone booth humanized folks whose stories and voices are often not told in traditional historical narratives, or, if they are, discussed in the aggregate in the stale pages of textbooks. Canvasses depicting numerous advertisements for slaves from the antebellum period grabbed my attention and broke my heart because I witnessed human beings discussed as livestock in excruciating detail. Toward the end of the museum, I walked into a room with golden images of major civil rights and Black Freedom icons such as John Lewis, Ida B. Wells, and Bayard Rustin. The juxtaposition was striking – most of the museum’s exhibits show suffering and tragedy in abundance, while also making a place to honor those who persisted through injustice anyway. The museum’s importance in telling a more honest version of American history cannot be understated.

The Museum and Memorial’s role in helping America to confront and atone for the sins of its past make it an essential visit for anyone who cares about justice or working toward a better future. What I experienced at the Opening helped add more context and nuance to the environmental justice work we do with Catherine Flowers in Lowndes County, and why we have to know this history before we can do our work ethically or effectively. I am sure that I will make the pilgrimage to this site many more times in the future, and I will urge anyone to do the same – to not do so is an affront to the memory of the millions of victims of racial terror in the American South.