Freedom Monument Sculpture Park Now Open!

Bryan Stevenson likes to say we are all more than the worst thing
we’ve ever done. He reminds juries of that when defending his
clients against death sentences.
Perhaps that same grace should extend to nations.

Stevenson is quick to add, however, an action’s full damage must be
understood before attempts at moving on are made.
“You can’t skip over the tough part because it’s only when you
appreciate the harm that you’re motivated to think about what’s the
repair needed? What’s the remedy needed? What’s the way
forward,” Stevenson told Forbes.com “I don’t think we’ve done a
very good job in traditional educational settings, and even in many
cultural settings, of truth-telling about this history in a way that
motivates us to want to see repair and restoration and a way
forward.”
Stevenson is talking about the history of enslavement, bigotry,
racial violence, and inequality in America. Subjects he’s deeply
familiar with as founder and executive director of the Equal Justice
Initiative, a non-profit organization based in Montgomery, AL. EJI
has been committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive
punishment in the United States since 1989, challenging racial and
economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most
vulnerable people in American society.
In 2018, Stevenson took his quest for equal rights beyond the
courtroom and activism into a new realm: museums and
monuments. The Equal Justice Initiative opened the Legacy
Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration that year along
with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice as part of its
national effort to create new spaces, markers, and memorials
addressing the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation.
The triumphant success of those projects has spawned a third, also
in Montgomery, the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park opening
on March 27, 2024.

The 17-acre site combines historical artifacts, contemporary art,
original research, and first-person narratives to provide a space for
exploring the institution of slavery, the lives of enslaved people, and
the legacy of slavery in this country.

Stevenson came across the previously city-owned land during the
pandemic, taking phone meetings while walking around the area
surrounding the first two Legacy Sites. The parcel had been
abandoned for over 70 years and used as a dump in the mid-20
century.
Its location along the Alabama River made it ideal for telling this
story.
“The Alabama River was a key part of the trade of enslaved people
here in Alabama and across the Deep South,” Stevenson said.
Visitors to the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park can do more
than look at the river, they can opt to arrive at the park by pontoon
boat on the river.
“People being moved by boat deeper into enslavement is an
important part of the story,” Stevenson said. “We liked having
people have some experience of the river. We have narratives at the
park where enslaved people are talking about being trafficked on
the river.”
By crossing a river which previously trafficked enslaved people onto
land where they were separated from family members in the heart
of the Black Belt, the Deep South, cotton country, the epicenter of
the Civil Rights Movement, Stevenson believes the impact of the
sculptures and historical artifacts displayed take on a deeper
meaning.
“There are so many Black and Indigenous artists who have created
works about the historical experience, but you encounter them in
what feels like very sterile environments in major museums and
marble halls,” he said. “I got excited about imagining what it would
th
be like to encounter these pieces in a space where the history of the
narrative they’re presenting could be felt and understood.”
Mass Incarceration, Lynching, Slavery:

America’s Unholy Trinity
The Legacy Museum focuses on mass incarceration, a
contemporary manifestation of America’s founding on slave labor.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice takes on the legacy of
slavery through the specific prism of lynching, racial terror, and
racial segregation–white nationalism’s backlash to the swift and
dramatic strides toward equality African Americans made during
Reconstruction.
Freedom Monument Sculpture Park centers on the enslavement of
10 million Black people and how that has shaped–and continues to
shape–the legal, cultural, social, and economic character of the
United States.
Stevenson was inspired to pursue this third Legacy Site during
plantation visits across the South during the pandemic. He’d never
visited one previously.
Alabama Sculpture Park  evokes the history of slavery
“I was struck by how all of those spaces, no matter how hard people
tried to lift up a narrative about enslaved people, are organized
around the lives of the people who enslaved others,” he said. “The
Big House dominates, the gardening, the landscape. Everything is
organized around that, and the lives of enslaved people are almost
necessarily marginalized.”
Stevenson realized a new model was needed. A place to tell the
story of slavery in a historically authentic space, putting the lives
of enslaved people first. It must focus on people; individuals and
personal stories instead of data. It needed to offer an experience,
create a journey.
Lessons learned in the courtroom.
“I’ve spent a good part of my career going into courtrooms where
there’s a lot of resistance, a lot of hostilities to hearing what I have
to say about the worth of my clients, the value of my client’s life,”
Stevenson said. “What that has taught me is that storytelling is
really important, the narrative is really important, helping people
understand how what you’re doing, what I’m doing, is not just for
my client, but it’s for the whole community. I believe that if I can
get a community to not execute someone–obviously that helps my
client out–but I think it’s the right thing for that community.”
The same argument could be made about slavery. Instead of
historic and renewed efforts in states like Florida to minimize the
horrors of slavery, communities, states, and the entire nation could
benefit–across racial lines–from acknowledging the evils and
ongoing impacts it caused.
How?
“I think a society that values compassion and kindness is a society
that gets closer to justice and equality,” Stevenson said.
Justice and equality for everyone, not only Black people.

AL. EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE
Visiting sculpture parks in Europe and seeing first-hand the power
of artists and artwork to communicate stories and experiences in
ways text alone can’t lead Stevenson to the idea of an outdoor
sculpture park for achieving his vision of sharing the story of
slavery in America.
“Art can make things that are dense and difficult accessible and
engaging,” he explained. “In our museum, we have found that the
use of sculpture, animation, video, and language has been powerful
in getting people to understand things about our challenging
history that they haven’t understood before.”

He sites Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s Nkyinkyim Installation at the
National Memorial for Peace and Justice as the textbook example.
“It’s a sculpture that depicts enslaved people and he presents the
brutality of slavery, but he also presents the dignity of the people
enslaved and it’s very effective at getting people to understand how
this history wasn’t abstract, wasn’t just something you read about,
it involved real people and I think that’s the power that artists have,
to create context,” Stevenson said.

For Freedom Monument Sculpture Park, a dream team of
contemporary artists with work on display includes Charles Gaines,
Alison Saar, Simone Leigh, Wangechi Mutu, Rose B. Simpson,
Theaster Gates, Kehinde Wiley, and Hank Willis Thomas. Nearly 50
artworks appear in tandem alongside historical artifacts
dramatizing the brutality of slavery while simultaneously
illuminating the strength, dignity, and power of enslaved people
and their descendants.

Among the historical artifacts are a pair of 170-year-old dwellings
from the Faunsdale Plantation 80-miles west of Montgomery.
Faunsdale was one of largest plantations in Alabama during the
19 century enslaving a huge number of people. The two dwellings
remained standing, albeit deteriorating, and were acquired,
conserved, moved, and now ultimately presented at the sculpture
park.
Bricks made by enslaved people 175 years ago can be seen and
touched.
Restraints and historical objects representing the violence of
slavery hammer home the brutalities, but Freedom Monument
Sculpture Park also shares stories of love, perseverance, family and
hope in the midst of sorrow. It does so most dramatically through
what are known as “last seen” ads.
“After emancipation, many enslaved people spent their last nickels
and dimes to take out (newspaper) ads looking for their children,
their parents, their siblings, their spouses,” Stevenson explains.
“These ads are written with a kind of longing that lets you know
these familial connections were everything to enslaved people. We
have a lot of first-person accounts by enslaved people, and (visitors)
again learn that what sustains people is the love of a mother or the
love of a child or a partner. That’s what allows people to navigate so
much of this brutality.”

AL. BRYAN STEVENSON
The National Monument to Freedom, standing 43-feet-tall and 155-
feet-long, marks the culmination of a guest’s journey through
Freedom Monument Sculpture Park. Designed by Stevenson using
research from the 1870 Census–the first time formerly enslaved
Black people were able to formally record a surname–the
Monument individually lists over 122,000 surnames that nearly
five million Black people adopted at the time and that tens of
millions of people now carry across generations.
“I’ve been long interested in this moment in American history
where formerly enslaved people got to claim a family name,”
Stevenson said. “My name is Stevenson and on my mother’s side,
there’s a very long verbal history and I can talk a lot about my
enslaved great grandparents. On my father’s side, there wasn’t that
tradition, so I knew nothing about the name Stevenson or how and
when that came to be.”
Of the 122,000 names, roughly 8,000 represent approximately 70%
of African Americans today. Those names appear on the front of the
monument with more obscure names on the back.
“I wanted to do something to bring to life and elevate this moment
where millions of people claimed an identity,” Stevenson said. “It’s
a uniquely American moment because formerly enslaved people
had been displaced, disconnected, didn’t come with names they
could retain or even remember like most immigrants, they created
names.”
At EJI’s Visitors Center, guests can learn more about the counties
and states associated with the names of formerly enslaved people,
and visitors can use kiosks to advance genealogical research or
trace family histories.
All those 122,000 names representing millions of people who
suffered under the worst conditions a nation could impose upon
people are owed a debt of gratitude by everyone visiting the park,
regardless of race.
“After emancipation, people chose citizenship and community over
retaliation and revenge against those who enslaved them,”
Stevenson said. “That is a remarkable thing and that’s the gift that
we’ve been given. I think it changes your relationship to
understanding the people who were enslaved when you can
appreciate this perseverance, this faith, this power, this strength,
and this hope quotient that they carried with them, even when
things were despairing.”
The Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice,
and now Freedom Monument Sculpture Park, they combine for a
long, difficult, tear-filled day of travel, of soul searching, of deep
thinking, but they’re necessary. They’re necessary in a country that
has continually failed to confront, let alone remedy, how its
formation and prosperity are owed to slave labor (and stolen land),
and how the impacts of those foundational evils persist.
“Taken together, I believe that people spending time (here), their
knowledge and understanding of American history will be
transformed,” Stevenson said. “Their consciousness about the
legacy of that history will be elevated. My hope is that their
commitment to advancing the kind of just society where we never
tolerate bigotry, and racism, and violence, and hate is elevated.”
One day, perhaps America can become more than the worst thing
its ever done.

Written by Chadd Scott

Freedom Monument Sculpture Park To Open In Montgomery, Alabama (forbes.com)