Standing next to me in front of the new Legacy Museum in blazing hot Montgomery, Alabama, my 12-year old son asks: "Why are you taking me to another museum?"
To be fair, it's not surprising that a sixth-grader would rather be playing video games. But we live only an hour from the museum and the also-new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is receiving international attention for its stunning public acknowledgment of our country's history of racial violence. It seemed wrong not to take him as soon as possible.
The museum and the memorial are the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal rights organization in Montgomery. The museum depicts the history of black people in the United States, beginning with slavery, through Jim Crow laws and segregation, to current issues of mass incarceration and police violence against blacks. (Its full name is the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.) The memorial honors 4,000 victims of lynching and other types of racial violence.
Since opening in Alabama's capital in April, both sites have received steady streams of visitors, including many children, said Sia Sanneh, senior attorney for the EJI. If you, too, are contemplating a visit with your children to these thought-provoking and moving sites, here are some things to consider before you go, based on my visit and discussions with museum officials and other experts.
Though the subject matter is disturbing, the museum and memorial are "less about shocking people and more about careful and deliberate storytelling to start conversations," Sanneh said. "Children have a lot of instincts about what is fair and unfair. Our job is to equip them with facts."
A former middle school teacher, Sanneh helped develop the content in the museum and at the memorial, which is designed to fill gaps in the history that most Americans learn in school, and to help families discuss issues of race, power and inequality in the country today.
Inspired by sites such as the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington and Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, the museum illuminates difficult history through individual stories, exhibits and works of art. Visitors encounter the material through video, text and interactive exhibits, including a touch-screen housing the Google-funded "Lynching in America" interactive online experience.
Both the museum and the memorial are self-guided, with staff members available to answer questions. Located less than a mile apart in the heart of downtown Montgomery, they were designed to be visited together. Ideally, visitors tour the museum then go to the memorial, where more than 800 six-foot-tall steel columns stand tall over Montgomery's landscape. Victims' names are etched on the columns, which are organized by county.
Sanneh said the museum is probably best for kids of middle school age and older, because that's around the time when children can process and engage with the material. Though no space is off limits, "we are careful with how we display graphic imagery," she said. Images of violence are contained to one area, where warnings are prominently posted. A visitor must press a button to see photos, which are displayed for 10 seconds.
My son, Nate, did not press the button to observe the content. He did comment on the signage at the entrance informing visitors that the museum is on the site of a former slave-trading quarters. He lingered at displays of actors portraying slaves, sharing their personal accounts of being separated from their families and enduring brutal conditions. He visited the exhibit designed to simulate a modern-day correctional facility, where visitors can pick up a phone and hear actual accounts of imprisoned people. He listened as I provided context about historical photos of protests in Birmingham, where we live. He saw the jars of soil collected from lynching sites around the country as part of the EJI's Community Remembrance Project.
In some jars, small greenery has sprouted in the soil's cracks. "In all of that death, there's still hope," a museum staff member said. "We're just going to let the little plants grow."
Hope is an important part of the experience.
"We want children and adults to see that the people who led the civil rights protests grew up in a time of lynching, and that hope came from this dark chapter," Sanneh said.
To help get that lesson across, "It's important to ask children, 'What kind of resilience did it take to live in conditions like that? What kind of courage did it take? What choices did a person make about whether to fight or whether to obey?' " said Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project. Montgomery offers plenty of sites to spark such conversations, including the Rosa Parks Museum, the Freedom Rides Museum and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. But such conversations can be overwhelming, so Costello suggested mixing history-intensive touring with other activities, such as renting a paddle board or having a picnic by the Alabama River, catching a minor-league Montgomery Biscuits baseball game, or visiting the Montgomery Zoo or the King Barn Dairy Mooseum, a hands-on children's museum with an agricultural theme.
She agreed that middle school is the ideal time to bring a child to the new museum. In preparation, she said, parents should keep in mind that schools often just teach the "highlight reel" of civil rights victories - the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, Rosa Parks's bus stand - without in-depth stories of individual struggle and resistance. She said that it's important to have conversations with your child to get a sense of what they've learned and to read age-appropriate books about slavery and civil rights before making the trip, such as "The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963" by Christopher Paul Curtis. The EJI has developed lesson plans about lynching for high schoolers, and more lesson plans are being developed for other ages.
To personalize history, parents should point out depictions of children in the museum, from the images of enslaved children to references to the Birmingham Children's Crusade, Costello said. They can also discuss the fact that some children were victims of racial violence, while others were among the crowds at public lynchings. When deciding how much detail to share, Costello said, "a parent always needs to judge where his or her child is, developmentally and emotionally."
Costello recommended that, when visiting the memorial, parents should explain to all children that this is a way to remember people who were murdered in a hate crime. Parents should ask questions such as, "How does this make you feel?" and share with their children how they feel while reading the stories and names. She and staff members at the EJI recommended that parents should point out the states they are from or have visited. Benches throughout the memorial provide a place for families to sit and reflect.
Adults will probably be learning along with their children. Before I visited, I didn't know that St. Petersburg, Florida, near my hometown, was the site of two documented lynchings. "It happened where you were from," my son said. "And it happened where I'm from." Yes, I told him, it did. At that moment, he got it. We used the car ride home as a chance to talk about the issues facing his generation, and how he could make a difference.
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Street is a writer based in Birmingham, Alabama.
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IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center
201 Tallapoosa St.
The hotel is located within walking distance from the museum and the memorial, and features a rooftop pool. Ask for the Heritage Package, which includes admission for two to the Rosa Parks Museum, King Memorial Church, Civil Rights Center and the Museum of Alabama. Rooms from $169.
Hampton Inn and Suites Montgomery-Downtown
100 Commerce St.
Just around the corner from the Legacy Museum, the hotel's perks include free WiFi, breakfast and an outdoor pool. Rooms from $101.
Where to eat
Chris' Hot Dogs
138 Dexter Ave.
The go-to spot for hot dogs for more than a century, Chris' patrons included President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Elvis Presley and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Entrees start at $2.50 for a hamburger or hot dog; both are made with Chris' homemade chili sauce.
31 S. Court St.
Introduce your children to the Southern tradition of a meat and three: one meat; three sides ($10). Think: Momma's meatloaf served with fried green tomatoes, mac and cheese, and collards. Entrees start at $7.
129 Coosa St.
Kids can split an oven-roasted pizza while mom and dad try the "Fried Catfish Factor" or the "Country Fried Yardbird BLT," which includes chicken, Conecuh sausage and pimento cheese. Entrees start at $12.
What to do
The Legacy Museum
115 Coosa St.
The 11,000-square-foot museum depicts the history of black people in America, beginning with slavery, through Jim Crow laws and segregation, to current issues of mass incarceration and police violence against blacks. Featuring interactive exhibits, art and video, the museum provides context for the memorial. Open 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission $8, seniors and students $5, children 6 and younger free.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
417 Caroline St.
This six-acre site uses sculpture, art, and design to acknowledge the U.S. history of racial violence. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission $8, seniors and students $5, children 6 and younger free. Combined ticket with the Legacy Museum: adults $10, students and seniors $7, children 6 and younger free. The EJI recommends purchasing tickets in advance.