Mind and Body

African American history as a vital part of American history

The legacy of slavery, lynching and the civil rights movement uncovered in a trip to Alabama

Photo by Toby Simon

Sam Walker provided a a tour of the Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama.

Photo by Toby Simon

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where in 1963 four young girls were murdered by a bombing at the church carried out by the Klu Klux Klan.

Photo by Toby Simon

In Montgomery, 800 steel sculptures commemorate the lynchings that occurred in 800 counties across the U.S.

Photo by Toby Simon

Outside the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace is a life-size sculpture that director Bryan Stevenson said: “You see the agony and the anguish and the suffering in these figures. It’s people in distress. And I don’t think we’ve actually done a very good job of acknowledging the pain and agony, the suffering, the humiliation, the complete denial of humanity that slavery created for black people on this Continent.”

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By Toby Simon
Posted 12/16/19
A trip to the South on a civil rights tour proves to be a journey where our past and current histories converge.
What is the best way to become comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations about racial equity? Will Providence and Rhode Island move forward to construct a bench to honor the legacy of slaves and their descendants, in partnership with the Toni Morrison Society and ConvergenceRI? How does health equity become an equal partner in the discussion of the future landscape of health care in Rhode Island? Why did it take so long to acknowledge the validity of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government?
Under-reported, the Center for Study of Slavery & Justice at Brown University held a two-day conference, beginning on Thursday, Dec. 5, “From Slave Ships to Black Lives Matter,” braiding together the need to understand the history of the slave trade as a global enterprise, and how the Black Lives Matter movement, nationally and internationally, is creating a new stage of Black freedom struggles in the U.S. and beyond.
The keynote talk, delivered by Dr. Cheryl Finley, was titled, “Not Everybody’s Ancestors Came Over on the Mayflower.” The Friday morning talk, which ConvergenceRI attended, focused on the “Slave Wrecks Project,” connecting archeology and history in the effort to unearth the remains of ships from the Atlantic slave trade, connecting Europe to Africa to South America, the Caribbean and the U.S., an expansion of the vision of the 1619 project.

PROVIDENCE – It started with an email exchange from a friend who had gone on one of my Travels With Toby trips to Haiti. How about a different type of trip, one to Alabama, to do a civil rights tour of several cities? We very quickly had a group of five interested women along with several itineraries from others who had done similar trips. As a group, we are women in our late 60s and early 70s. We shared the responsibility for various aspects of the planning and organizing of the trip.

We all understood that African-American history is a vital part of American history yet this was the first trip for each of us to the South, where this human rights movement began.

Nothing prepares you for being on the hallowed ground of the Edmund Pettus bridge, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where 4 young girls were killed, the Brown Chapel AME church in Selma, the street corner in Montgomery where Rosa Parks waited for the bus, or the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors the 4,300 victims of racial terror lynchings.

Heartbreak in Selma
We were unprepared for how heartbreaking the city of Selma is. People have fled, businesses are shuttered, deteriorated houses remain boarded up and abandoned, and the Voting Rights museum struggles for visitors.

A man named Sam Walker gave us a tour of the Museum. [See first image.] He is an Army veteran, in his mid-sixties, and was 11 years old when the third and final attempt at marching to Montgomery actually happened in 1965.

Sam and other kids his age had a very specific job during the march. They were sent to the campgrounds that would house the marchers each night. The boys cleaned the grounds and prepared them for the protestors. The following day they would go back and clean up the sites and move on to the next one.

Sam’s parents both worked so they couldn’t assemble at the Court House each day to advocate for voting rights. Sam and other friends went instead and held signs that read: “Let our parents vote.” On two occasions Sam was jailed for peacefully protesting, as were other chidlren. They were often left in overcrowded, damp, moldy cells for more than 12 hours until word had gotten to their parents.

Yet with great enthusiasm and pride and in a powerfully thick southern accent and cadence, Sam recounted the history of the Selma march, Dr. King’s involvement and pivotal role, and the church as the place/safe haven for community organizing.

Shared memories
Our emotions ran high during this trip. I thought about my mother often. I thought about her sisters, one of whom had participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Growing up in Syracuse, New York, my mother was a single mom who also was a member of CORE [Congress for Racial Equality]. Our dinner table during the 60s often included discussions about race, discrimination, and human rights.

I have vivid memories of going with her to protest the latest injustices of the Woolworth Company, of being on a picket line, of singing the protest songs. Before my mother took me shopping for a dress to the junior prom, she insisted we stop at a local demonstration to march with the others.

Everyone has a story
Perhaps the most memorable aspects of the trip were the conversations we had with local residents of small towns in Alabama as well as others who worked at the museums. Everyone has a story.

In Heflin, Alabama, a town of 4,000 people, we stopped abruptly at the sight of a sign that read “Democratic Party of Alabama.” We met and chatted with Darrell Turner, a life-long Democrat and officer in the Alabama Democratic Party, who said there were maybe two other Democrats in town.

One of our tour guides in Birmingham talked about his mother, now 85. When she went to vote 60 years ago, she passed the first civics test. When she brought her test results to the officials, they asked her some more questions. They showed her two big jars: one full of jelly beans, the other full of sand. They asked her how many green jelly beans were in one jar and how many grains of sand were in the other jar. Since she couldn’t answer those questions, she was denied her voter registration.

We stopped in Gee’s Bend, a small, remote black community of 700. There, women have made quilt masterpieces dating from the early 20th century to present. Most of Gee’s Bend residents are descendants of slaves, and for years they worked the fields belonging to the Pettway plantation.

There are many Pettways in the hamlet. China Pettway, a quilter, told me that many people in town have changed their last names.

Reaching Montgomery
Our final and most fitting stop was Montgomery, home of the Equal Justice Initiative [EJI] and the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Memorial commemorates the victims of lynching in the U.S. It opened a year ago and includes 800 hanging steel rectangles, representing each county in the U.S. where a documented lynching took place. It stands high on a hillside overlooking downtown Montgomery, a city that was the hub for the domestic slave trade. [See third image.]

The founder and director of the EJI, Bryan Stevenson, said of one of the life-size sculptures: “You see the agony and the anguish and the suffering in these figures.” He continues: “It’s people in distress. And I don’t think we’ve actually done a very good job of acknowledging the pain and agony, the suffering, the humiliation, the complete denial of humanity that slavery created for black people on this continent.” [See fourth image.]

The Legacy Museum draws a direct line from slavery and lynching to the injustices of mass incarceration and disparities today in the criminal justice system. There’s a replica of a prison visitation booth where you face and hear from a former inmate describe being on death row for 30 years before his conviction was overturned. Chilling and enraging.

Someone who had done a similar civil rights tour told us to bring lots of Kleenex. We didn’t bring enough.

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.

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