By Zachary F. Wright
The room is dimly lit when you enter, a short ramp leading you further into the darkness.
Five prison cells await. Old. Wooden with iron bars and solid padlocks.
Within, ghostly apparitions come into focus. Old women. Young men. A child.
Their eyes find yours. And they tell their stories.
A mother recalls waking to hear that her child is already on a boat sailing down river, sold while she slept.
Their words end. Their eyes lock. And they fade.
Further on, there are shelves laden with earth-filled jars.
Each jar bears a name, a date, and a county.
Each jar a lynching, a murder.
Beyond the shelves are the phone booths one finds in prison visitation rooms.
You sit and lift the receiver.
A screen comes into focus.
Men and women speak of their incarceration.
34 years. 42 years.
Life without parole. Sentenced at 17 years of age.
The men and women share their stories of violence, hopelessness, and rape.
Solitary confinement for months at a time.
A young man given a knife from a guard, knowing full well he cannot protect him.
They thank you for listening to their stories.
You lay down the receiver as the images fade.
Behind you is a wall rising up to the ceiling adorned with signs of Jim Crow.
Whites Only. No Blacks. No Mexicans. No Jews. No dogs.
Outside, a shuttle bus takes you 10 minutes away to the lynching memorial.
Passing through security, you turn left into the sun.
A statue awaits.
Five Africans, loin-clothed, shackled and stooped.
Their mouths agape in terror. Their arms reach out for one another.
A mother has a baby in her arms. An iron collar around her neck.
The path takes you up and around a bend to the left.
The ceilinged, open-aired structure awaits.
Rust-colored metal rectangles, about 8 feet high, sit on the ground.
There are names.
CALEB CAMPBELL. 06.03.1882
ANDY CALDWELL. 06.21.1889
JULES SMITH. 06.14.1915
You walk further, into a forest of upright metal coffins.
Surrounded by names, dates, and counties.
Surrounded by murder.
One stops you.
_____ BISCOE 02.07.1892
_____ BISCOE 02.07.1892
A family. Murdered.
You turn a corner. The the names being to rise, the metal coffins beginning to float off the ground.
Another turn, and you are underneath them.
A ceiling of coffins. Markers of murder.
You wonder why.
And the answers are there.
Lynched for speaking disrespectfully about some white people.
Lynched for ‘slandering a respectable white family.’
Lynched for not allowing a white man to beat him in a fight.
Lynched for ‘frightening’ a white girl.
Lynched for ‘standing around’ in a white neighborhood.
Lynched by a mob of at least 3,000 people.
Lynched for knocking on a white woman’s front door.
You emerge into sunlight, into the words of Baby Suggs Holy.
Her words are there, straight from the pages of Beloved.
Her words implore the hated to love themselves, for those outside most assuredly do not.
The ramp descends, taking you back, changed forever by your visit to the National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
We, as a nation, have done nothing to repent for our national sins.
Nothing to acknowledge and repent for our constitutionally supported racism, hatred, and dehumanization.
Nothing to acknowledge and repent for our hundreds of years of rape, servitude, and murder.
Nothing to to acknowledge and dismantle our enduring systems of racial oppression that draw a straight line from slavery to mass incarceration, the auction block to the prison cell, the lynching to the police stop.
I have a duty.
As an American, a father, and an educator, I have a duty.
To remember. To acknowledge. And to pass on.
It won’t be long before I return to Montgomery.
And I won’t be alone.
I will walk through the forest of coffins and read the names with my wife and sons.
We did this, I will tell them.
We did this.
And for that, we must never forget.
Zachary Wright, a national finalist for the United States Department of Education’s School Ambassador Fellowship is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education serving Philadelphia and Camden. Prior to that, he was the 12th-grade world literature and AP literature teacher at Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus for the last eight years, teaching the school’s first eight graduating classes.
Over his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, he was named Philadelphia’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has participated in the fight for equal education funding by testifying before Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission as well as in the state house rotunda in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.