“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
So says the outside of the building where the Legacy Museum is housed, a building that from the 1830s to 1860s warehoused Black people as they waited, torn from their families, to be sold into the control of a landowner. Inside the museum is a timeline, connecting the dots between slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the school to prison pipeline that plagues our country today.
The Museum and its sister site, the Memorial, were created by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and author of Just Mercy, EJI is dedicated to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. They provide legal assistance to innocent death row prisoners, confront abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aid children prosecuted as adults.
After visiting the museum, Drew and I went to the Memorial. Pictures don’t do it justice. Four thousand souls are memorialized on steel monuments, hung from the rafters, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.
The visuals are amazing. But what struck me as I walked through the museum and the memorial was the language used to describe the conditions and events of slavery. The words were racial terror lynchings, targeted racial violence, and legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy. The people affected aren’t slaves. They are enslaved people. It’s not slave trade, it’s trafficking in persons. It’s a narrative change, a change that exposes the truth—this was racial violence, perpetrated by white people, white laws, and white language—which continues even today.
Towards the end of the memorial, there is a poem written by Elizabeth Alexander, called Invocation. I’ve attached a photo, but here are the words:
The wind brings your names.
We will never dissever your names
nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.
The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.
There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us
how you got over. Say, Soul I look back in wonder.
Your names were never lost,
each name a holy word.
The rocks cry out—
call out each name to sanctify this place.
Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,
a moan, a sorrow song,
a keen, a cackle, harmony,
a hymnal, handbook, chart,
a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.
Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,
despised and disciplined.
You will find us still mis-named.
Here you will find us despite.
You will not find us extinct.
You will find us here memoried and storied.
You will find us here mighty.
You will find us here divine.
You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.
Here you endure and are luminous.
You are not lost to us.
The wind carries sorrows, sighs, and shouts.
The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.
It’s going to take me some time to understand all that I have seen, but what I have seen cannot be unseen. And I refuse to live it again.
Thank you to the great crew at Wake Forest Baptist Church—Erica, Eve, Kelly, Alexx, and Christie—for leading in my absence. And thank you, friends, for the amazing opportunity to be your pastor. I love you.