Written by Jason Perry, University of Montevallo Director of Student Diversity
The University of Montevallo’s Minorities Achieving Dreams of Excellence (M.A.D.E.) Program and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted a trip on Feb. 17 to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, to give UM students the opportunity to honor Black History Month by engaging in an immersive experience exploring the challenging aspects of American History, from enslavement to the ongoing issue of mass incarceration.
The Equal Justice Initiative was established in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, a graduate of Harvard Law School and an acclaimed lawyer, speaker, social justice advocate and author. The EJI was founded to provide legal representation for marginalized communities, specifically for those who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced and have become victims of excessive punishment and abuse within state jails and prisons. For more than three decades, the EJI has challenged the death penalty and provided programs and services for reentry of formerly incarcerated people, but it was not until 2018 that the EJI opened their award-winning Legacy Museum and the Peace and Justice Memorial.
In the heart of this year’s Black History Month, UM’s President’s Office sponsored a trip to the museum and memorial for any UM students seeking a deeper understanding of the historical factors that shaped Black history and the hidden terrors perpetuated by enslavement, lynching, segregation and the many other injustices experienced by the Black community for generations.
More than 90 UM students, faculty and staff began their experience at the Peace and Justice Memorial Center, which holds sculptures, reflection spaces and monuments that honor and memorialize victims of racial terror lynching, police violence, humiliation, and any other forms of racial discrimination. Students were devastatingly captivated by the more than 800 steel monuments representing thousands of lynching victims across 12 states. The memorial trail, which sits upon six acres of land, led students through a self-guided tour that provides contextualization of racial terror and aims to embrace the EJI’s commitment to restorative truth-telling and justice. For students experiencing the memorial for the first time, this was a breathtaking sight, which forces visitors to confront thoughts, feelings and perceptions at the first moment through the gates.
“[Here] we were told that a name could only be recorded if there were two sources documenting their death,” said UM student Sydney Packer Hollis, reflecting on the trip. “There were 4,000 names or unknowns. I can only imagine how many people were actually lynched… It [lynching] impacted the lives of Black people for multiple generations.”
Students were flooded with the horrific stories of families being torn apart, Black men, women, and children being terrorized, and how violence perpetrated by white supremacists oppressed and deconstructed the Black community for generations.
During lunch, with the support of team leaders, students were able to debrief from the striking symbolic memorialization of racial terror victims and process not only the vivid imagery provided by the Peace and Justice Memorial, but also prepare for the unique and distinctive experience the Legacy Museum provides.
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which opened in 2018 and then moved to a new location in 2021, is located only blocks from a prominent slave auction space in our history as well as a rail station that contributed to trafficking thousands of Black people in the 19th century. As the bus parked, students could preview parts of the museum’s contents across the side of the building, and lined up with anticipation as they walked under the building’s stunning sign, which spans the length of the building. Students filed in one-by-one to experience vivid and encapsulating technology, art and videos that helped visitors truly understand and envision the pain, fear, anger and sadness that radiated from the stories and dark and troubling history depicted throughout the museum.
Some words the students used to describe the contents of the museum were heartbreaking, pervasive, shocking, profound, breathtaking and overwhelming.
The Legacy Museum uses advanced technology, animated short films, documentaries, world-class art, in-depth contextualization and artifacts to educate visitors on economic enslavement, the gruesomeness of slavery, racial terrorism, lynching, oppressive voting practices and mass incarceration, along with current examples of injustice. Also featured was The Remembrance Project which encompasses 800 jars of soil from lynching sites which are represented by markers in the counties they took place, to accurately reflect proponents of our history. Students spent hours exploring the immersive rooms and exhibits within the museum, with some being overcome by emotion from the harsh and unfiltered images and stories throughout the museum.
“I’ve heard stories from my family [of slavery, racism, and segregation], but going in was a lot more shocking than I expected and I didn’t realize the effect seeing it up close would have on me,” said Jazmin Miller, a M.A.D.E. Ambassador, while reflecting about the visit. “It is heartbreaking, but it is amazing what they have done with this museum.”
After students finished touring the museum, they were able to reflect on what they saw and experienced as they waited for other students to finish the tour and visit the gift shop. Following the visit, students were able to gather with their team leaders to discuss the purpose and significance of the museum and memorial and the biggest takeaways from what they experienced. Students were able to submit responses to Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Dr. Gregory Samuels regarding the exploitation and humiliation of Black people, lynching, historical truth telling, reconciliation and other issues covered by the museum and memorial.
Dr. Samuels worked alongside the President’s Office and the M.A.D.E. Program to coordinate this meaningful trip.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the field trip and experience with our students and colleagues,” Samuels expressed while reflecting on the visit to the memorial and museum. “It is not something that most people can easily endure as it prompts a certain level of reflection, self-indictment, understanding of humanity, and simultaneously allowing oneself to be angry, cry and have hope. Our fellow colleagues who joined us and especially our young students “did the work” of humanity that day. In the near future, hopefully these same students can inform others of this legacy.”
Offices across campus have been seeking opportunities to recognize Black excellence in world history as well as on campus over the past several weeks. The UM Black Student Union hosted a BSU week to connect students as well as celebrate the history being made on campus. Lastly, M.A.D.E. and UM Counseling Services are partnering to introduce The Black Experience Group, which will provide Black students the space to explore Black culture as well as the similarities and differences that connect our students and build a more unified depiction of what it means to be Black at Montevallo and in our society.
“By investing in the experience and education of Black students, we are creating Black history this month and every month for the exceptional and unique Black students that walk our campus everyday,” Jason Perry, director of student diversity at UM, stated while describing the events of this year’s Black history month. “In providing opportunities like the EJI Trip and the Black Experience Group, we are showing what it means when we say students belong at Montevallo, by making a space for their culture to be explored, valued, honored, celebrated and integral to the identity of our campus.”
Providing this enriching and powerful experience to students is only a part of how the University of Montevallo celebrates and promotes Black history.
Special thanks to our team leaders for supporting UM students on this trip:
Jason Perry (M.A.D.E.), Danielle Parks and Gregory Samuels (College of Education and Human Development), Elisabeth Ownbey (Falcon Success Center), Cassandra Moore (Student Life), Benny Ndalima (M.A.D.E.), Mixtica Canales (M.A.D.E.), and Rakia Hassell (GEARUP Jefferson County).
To keep up with the efforts of UM’s diversity initiatives and programs please visit montevallo.edu/made or follow M.A.D.E. on social media at @montevallomade (Instagram) and University of Montevallo MADE (Facebook).