Can the National Lynching Memorial Help Houston Face its Past?

Wretha Hudson, 73, discovers a marker commemorating lynchings in Lee County, Texas while visiting the National Memorial For Peace And Justice on April 26, 2018 in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo: Bob Miller / Getty Images)
Wretha Hudson, 73, discovers a marker commemorating lynchings in Lee County, Texas while visiting the National Memorial For Peace And Justice on April 26, 2018 in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo: Bob Miller / Getty Images)

Walking amongst the 800 weathered Corten steel columns at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., in early June, I could not shake the feeling that the dead were among us.

Each column bears the name of a county and the names of racial terror victims who were lynched there, and as you walk through the pavilion, the columns slowly rise until they are hanging a few feet off the ground. Southern trees bear strange fruit echoed through my head as I walked past each county, unconsciously searching for names that I recognized. Loudoun County, Orleans Parish, Plaquemine Parish … Harris County.

The steel columns, which have been exposed to the elements since the memorial’s opening in April, have already weathered in a way that looks eerily like dried blood.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an Alabama-based nonprofit that provides legal representation to those who might have been denied a fair trial, opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in April 2018. Known to many simply as the Lynching Memorial, it was unveiled in conjunction with the Legacy Museum, a masterful transformation of an former slave warehouse into a museum that documents the dehumanization and commodification of black people that persisted through Jim Crow and into our present era of mass incarceration.

The memorial, designed by MASSDesign group and EJI director Bryan Stevenson, gracefully answers the questions posed by architect Julian Bonder: “How do we convey the critical significance of design in conceiving and creating democratic public spaces and democratic memorial spaces? How can we elaborate on the ethical implications of Hannah Arendt’s description of the public sphere as ‘the space of appearance’?”

Memorials need not be flashy or explicit to be moving. In fact, they are often at their most poignant and most democratic when they choose a seemingly simple approach that can be interacted with on multiple levels, engaging their viewer in a peaceful act of remembrance without having to relive the trauma of the past, much like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or the Vietnam War Memorial.

On the 10-hour drive from Alabama back to Houston, I could not help wondering why we as a country had taken so long to do something so necessary.

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SOURCE: Irene Vázquez,
OffCite / Houston Chronicle