The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration

EJI believes that the history of racial inequality and economic injustice in the United States has created continuing challenges for all Americans, and more must be done to advance our collective goal of equal justice for all. The United States has done very little to acknowledge the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation. As a result, people of color are disproportionately marginalized, disadvantaged and mistreated. The American criminal justice system is compromised by racial disparities and unreliability that is influenced by a presumption of guilt and dangerousness that is often assigned to people of color. For more than a decade, EJI has been conducting extensive research into the history of racial injustice and the narratives that have sustained injustice across generations. Our new museum is the physical manifestation of that research.

The Legacy Museum:  From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration opened to the public on April 26, 2018, in Montgomery, Alabama. The 11,000-square-foot museum is built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned, and is located midway between an historic slave market and the main river dock and train station where tens of thousands of enslaved people were trafficked during the height of the domestic slave trade. Montgomery's proximity to the fertile Black Belt region, where slave-owners amassed large enslaved populations to work the rich soil, elevated Montgomery's prominence in domestic trafficking, and by 1860, Montgomery was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama, one of the two largest slave-owning states in America.

The Legacy Museum employs unique technology to dramatize the enslavement of African Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in America. Relying on rarely seen first-person accounts of the domestic slave trade, EJI’s critically acclaimed research materials, videography, exhibits on lynching and recently composed content on segregation, this 11,000-square-foot museum explores the history of racial inequality and its relationship to a range of contemporary issues from mass incarceration to police violence.

Visitors encounter a powerful sense of place when they enter the museum and confront slave pen replicas, where you can see, hear, and get close to what it was like to be imprisoned awaiting sale at the nearby auction block. First-person accounts from enslaved people narrate the sights and sounds of the domestic slave trade. Extensive research and videography helps visitors understand the racial terrorism of lynching, and the humiliation of the Jim Crow South.  Compelling visuals and data-rich exhibits give visitors the opportunity to investigate America's history of racial injustice and its legacy, drawing dynamic connections across generations of Americans impacted by the narrative of racial difference.

EJI has curated sculptures from Titus Kaphar and Sanford Biggers, a wide range of videography and animated content from leading filmmakers and artists, and fine art pieces including works from Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, Yvonne Meo and Kay Brown, art which challenges and inspires visitors. Design and creative partners also include Local Projects, Tim Lewis and TALA, Molly Crabapple, Orchid Création, Stink Studios, Human Pictures, HBO, and Google.

An unparalleled resource for researchers, the museum houses the nation's most comprehensive collection of data on lynching. It also presents previously unseen archival information about the domestic slave trade brought to life through new technology.

As a physical site and an outreach program, the Legacy Museum:  From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is an engine for education about the legacy of racial inequality and for the truth and reconciliation that leads to real solutions to contemporary problems.

The Story: Slavery Evolved  

To justify the brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a narrative of racial difference. Stereotypes and false characterizations of black people were disseminated to defend their permanent enslavement as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro” – an act of kindness that reinforced white supremacy. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end: it evolved.

In the decades that followed, these beliefs in racial hierarchy took new expression in convict leasing, lynching, and other forms of racial terrorism that forced the exodus of millions of black Americans to the North and West, where the narrative of racial difference manifested in urban ghettos and generational poverty.

Racial subordination was codified and enforced by violence in the era of Jim Crow and segregation, as the nation and its leaders allowed black people to be burdened, beaten, and marginalized throughout the 20th century.

Progress towards civil rights for African Americans was made in the 1960s, but the myth of racial inferiority was not eradicated. Black Americans were vulnerable to a new era of racial bias and abuse of power wielded by our contemporary criminal justice system. Mass incarceration has had devastating consequences for people of color: at the dawn of the 21st century, one in three black boys was projected to go to jail or prison in his lifetime.

The museum and memorial are part of EJI’s work to advance truth and reconciliation around race in America and to more honestly confront the legacy of slavery, lynching, and segregation. “Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” EJI Director Bryan Stevenson explains. “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

Modeled on important projects used to overcome difficult histories of genocide, apartheid, and horrific human rights abuses in other countries, EJI’s sites are designed to promote a more hopeful commitment to racial equality and just treatment of all people.

The April 26 opening was accompanied by several days of educational panels and presentations from leading national figures, performances and concerts from acclaimed recording artists, and a large opening ceremony. Thousands of visitors traveled to Montgomery to celebrate the launch of these important new American institutions.

Tickets for admission to the museum and the memorial are now available at museumandmemorial.eji.org.