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Alabama's Freedom Monument Sculpture Park tells the story of enslaved people

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., has opened the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park. It is a direct confrontation with slavery and its impact on this country. It's EJI's third public space, which includes The Legacy Museum and a memorial for victims of lynching. The park is meant to get visitors closer to the experiences of enslaved people in America. Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott visited the new monument and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWING)

KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: The park is bounded by two monolithic forces that made the slave trade in the United States possible - the Alabama River, which brought over 10,000 Africans captured and trafficked into the state's slave trade, and...

BRYAN STEVENSON: These railcars that you're hearing - they're on rail tracks that were built by enslaved people. Because of rail trafficking, Montgomery had one of the largest populations of enslaved people in the American South - tens of...

GASSIOTT: Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents people it deems unfairly convicted in the criminal justice system. Now the group has created this park. Stevenson says museums that address slavery are usually found in old plantation homes that are really about glorifying or romanticizing those who enslaved others.

STEVENSON: We wanted to create a space where the lives of enslaved people could be centered, where their perspective, their experiences would direct the narrative and shape the experience.

GASSIOTT: On the first section of the path is a large installation by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto Bamfo titled "We Am Very Cold."

KWAME AKOTO BAMFO: So the first part, we see young Africans, teenagers, arrive in a strange world, a strange new world.

GASSIOTT: Nine metal figures appear to shiver and brace against the cold, some in chains, one wearing a heavy, spiked punishment collar. Akoto Bamfo says he uses life-size figures like this to directly address the viewer and get them thinking.

AKOTO BAMFO: I want you to size them. I want you to see, am I taller than this person? Am I shorter than this person? How can I relate to this person?

GASSIOTT: Akoto Bamfo has used visual cues to connect the statues. One woman has a scar on her face. Later on the path, her figure appears again, this time picking cotton in a field. Another narrative that's told on the path is on various plaques in written form. It's the words of William Wells Brown. He was a historian and novelist, and he was enslaved in the early 19th century, along with his mother, in Kentucky. Brown, who worked in the house, writes about waking one morning to hear his mother, who worked in the field, being beaten. His words are read by actor Quentin Cockrell.

QUENTIN COCKRELL: (Reading) I heard a voice and knew it and jumped out of my bunk and went to the door. Though the field was some distance from the house, I could hear every crack of the whip and every groan and cry of my poor mother.

GASSIOTT: Brown had an almost videographic ability to write about his experience with enslavement, says Ezra Greenspan, who's written a biography of Brown.

EZRA GREENSPAN: It's one of the broadest perspectives we have on the history of slavery from someone who was writing from within the experience.

GASSIOTT: The hardship of slavery is portrayed in the park through other sculptures. There's one of leg chains in the corner of a railroad car. Another is a statue of a young boy forced to drag a cotton bag larger than himself through a field.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Say your prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I love the Lord.

GASSIOTT: There are also representations of faith and spirituality. One sculpture is of stacked tambourines, painted white, ready to be played at a wedding or in church. The word love also appears in prominent places across the park, a deliberate choice by Stevenson.

STEVENSON: I'm more than anything amazed by the capacity of enslaved people to love in the midst of sorrow, to find something redemptive, to find something genuine and pure and beautiful when you're surrounded by so much ugliness and pain and violence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It'll take people to this website. So say, if your last name...

GASSIOTT: Near the end of the path sits a 50-foot-high, burnt-orange wall. It's the monument to freedom that includes 100,000 last names. Those last names represent 4.7 million enslaved people set free after emancipation. Stevenson says behind them are the struggles, commitments and sacrifices of another 6 million who never saw freedom.

STEVENSON: It's a way of just humanizing this community of people who endured so much, who suffered so much and yet gave so much to this country. This nation wouldn't be what it is without the labor and the sacrifice and the toil and the struggle of enslaved people.

GASSIOTT: Stevenson says with this new monument, there's now a physical reminder of the impact slavery had on this country and on the people who lived it. For NPR News, I'm Kyle Gassiott in Montgomery, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kyle Gassiott