MacArthur Genius Bryan Stevenson Is Building America’s First Slavery Museum
Countries from Germany to Rwanda have erected so-called “museums of conscience” devoted to reckoning with the darkest episodes in their history. At a moment of heightened struggles over the symbols of racism across the United States, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is looking to add to that catalogue with a new institution whose name says it all: The From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration Museum.
Scheduled to open next year in Montgomery, Alabama, the new museum will focus on telling a story that connects the dots from slavery through segregation to the well-documented and dramatic disparities within the criminal justice system today. In service of this narrative, it will feature artifacts, but also more high-tech attractions, including virtual reality that promises “to immerse visitors in the sights and sounds of the domestic slave trade, racial terrorism, and the Jim Crow South.”
The story will be amplified by a collection of work by an extensive roster of modern and contemporary African-American artists, including John Thomas Biggers, Sanford Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Titus Kaphar, Jacob Lawrence, Glenn Ligon, and Hank Willis Thomas.
Founded in 1989, and led by lawyer Bryan Stevenson, EJI has a staff of about 50 and works to liberate the wrongfully incarcerated. (The nonprofit has been a major beneficiary of Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice Fund, which was seeded by her $150 million sale of a work by Roy Lichtenstein.)
The history of the organization is described in Stevenson’s extraordinary 2015 memoir Just Mercy, hailed by the New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof, who wrote that Stevenson “may, indeed, be America’s Mandela.” Stevenson has argued five times before the Supreme Court, and is a MacArthur foundation “Genius” grantee.