Center for Youth Wellness

Journey to Montgomery: A Personal Reflection

By Diana Hembree, Science Writer

As my mother lay dying, she told me about something that happened when she was a child, and every time she talked about it she would cry. She had grown up on a little farm outside Ashland, Alabama, a tiny postage-stamp of a town, and when she was six, she and a friend her age went to get an ice cream cone. The two little girls walked into the store holding hands, swinging their arms back and forth in gleeful anticipation. But when they asked for ice cream, the store owner glared at them and refused to budge.

“It was so awful,” my mother would say through tears. “He said he would serve me, but not my friend.” My mother was white; her friend was black. “He said I don’t serve  – “ my mother paused – “well, you know what he said; I can’t bear to repeat it. Oh, her face, her face when he said that. I can never forget it.” Her father, who was a Baptist preacher, walked in the store and saw the girls crying. “Why are you doing this to the children?” he asked him, entreating the man to change his mind. “Well, Reverend, I’m sorry but I just can’t do that.” Finally, my grandfather asked the girls to wait outside while he got two cones and brought them out for them to eat. The ice cream tasted like dust, like ashes.

I thought about my mother and her friend when my colleagues at the Center for Youth Wellness and I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  It was a time of bonding and learning on an epic scale.

The museum is a wrenching, soul-searing journey into the horrors of slavery, and – as its name suggests – slavery’s dark legacy. The National Memorial is dedicated to the victims of white supremacy, much as the Holocaust Museum is dedicate to the victims of genocide. Montgomery is also the birthplace of the U.S. civil rights movement, and we were excited to visit the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, who was chosen to lead the Montgomery bus boycott; the Rosa Parks Museum; the bridge to Selma; and the old Trailways terminal, which is now a museum dedicated to the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to overturn segregation on interstate buses. An anonymous funder generously donated to enable this pilgrimage, and I feel that if every person in the United States could make this journey and be taught our true history in the schools, we would be a different country – one that is more just and merciful.

The haunting oral histories of slaves and their descendants trace a history that far too few Americans are aware of. The crime of slavery didn’t end with the civil war: Its legacy stretches from the failed Reconstruction, in which newly freed black men were arrested in massive numbers and forced to work as “free” (convict) labor, to the rise of white supremacy and segregation. The legacy of slavery continues from white terrorism in the South that forced millions of blacks to flee to other states and the rise of mass incarceration so racially discriminatory that one in three black male babies will end up in prison. As a coda, the museum notes that racism and acts of white terror also traumatized white Americans and undermined their psychological health.

At the National Memorial, which honors the more than 4,000 African Americans who were terrorized and lynched between 1877 and 1950, the victims – men, women, and children — are named by county on steel columns dangling from beams.  There are duplicates on the ground that resemble rows of tombstones, and I felt a scalding shame to see my home state of Georgia was represented by a row of columns so long that it stretched around a corner. I hoped I would not see a column from Fulton County, where I grew up, but there it was, with the names of so many lynching victims they had to be etched in two columns.  So was Cobb County, where I was born, and the counties where my mother and father were born. On some walls, the actions that preceded the lynchings were recorded: A black person had refused to address a white man as “sir,” declined to buy a cow at a certain price, tried to start a union, or was singled out and killed for no reason at all.

The memorial underscores the different realities between blacks and whites in the South and elsewhere – something that will help shape my writing and thought leadership for the Center for Youth Wellness. For me, as a child, Alabama was an idyllic place where I spent hours collecting chicken eggs, petting cows and catching crayfish on my relatives’ farms; I barely noticed they had no electricity or running water. For many blacks during that same period, the South was a place they could never feel safe. This was brought home during the trip when our chief of staff, who grew up in Texas and had relatives in Louisiana, shared what she was thinking about as she looked at the metal columns at the memorial for lynching victims: “I was looking for names of family members.”

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