The second day of this visit to the Southeast began with a drive to Alabama, which would become the newest state visited (as of this trip, I’ve now been to 43 out of 50). This a personally a special moment as it marked the first time I had ever been to the state where my grandfather on my mother’s side was born.
The main plan for the day was to ride the coasters of the Gulf Coast that were open for the day, although they would have staggered hours. Waterville USA and Sam’s Fun City both opened earlier in the day, while Race City would not open until four in the afternoon, thus leading to the route of going further to the West first to the Gulf Shores area, then back tracking toward Pensacola and Panama Beach afterward.
But before getting to Waterville, the drive would head toward the city of Montgomery. Having been to South Africa and experiencing the Apartheid Museum, I recall having seen in the news just after returning from South Africa that there was a memorial built to the victims of lynching in the United States during the times of segregation. Seeing that this drive would head that way, I thought I would pay a visit to see it, and in looking up information about it, I found that there was also the Legacy Museum that is connected to it, as they are both maintained by the Equal Justice Initiative.
Upon arrival to the city, I went to the museum first, as I had a feeling that it would help provide better context of the memorial having some background on the basis of it, which turned out to be the way that those working for EJI would suggest you should visit. I did find out that normally you need to have a reserved time for visiting the museum, but I lucked out that there was a group in the museum who had spare tickets they left at the front for anyone who may be a walk-in. When purchasing tickets for the museum, it is possible to get a combination ticket with the memorial which is just up the hill from the main part of downtown Montgomery. Photos inside of the museum are not allowed, so I’ll provide a bit more detail about the exhibit.
The museum is focused on the difficulties faced by African Americans throughout the course of American History. The focus of the museum starts with slavery as when you enter the museum, and you learn about slave trade and how the population of slaves changed over the years. It then leads to a room that has replicas of the holding cells where those who were about to be sold at a slave auction were held, and inside the cell there are holograms of slaves in the appearance of ghosts which activate when you stand next to the cell by telling their stories, which are based off of the stories told by actual slaves.
From there you enter the main exhibition hall, which covers the various times of inequality faced by African Americans. In the area about slavery, you see enlarged newspaper ads for slaves, as if it was like buying a new dish washer, and photos sharing the conditions they went through. Another section focuses on the times of segregation and the differences of which whites and minorities experienced during this time. There is a significant portion of thIS space that focuses on lynching, for it was used as a form of terrorism against African Americans, especially in the Southeast where racial tensions were the strongest. In this section, you can search a database that has all of the documented lynchings that had taken place in the United States, which provided a moment of surprise for me in a way. I found out that there were no known lynchings to have occurred back in Pitt County, North Carolina, where I lived from my freshman year of high school all the way to a few years after college. On the other hand, in general, the number of lynchings in North Carolina’s counties overall tended to be far fewer than that of their Southern neighbors, which may have been because in comparison to the other states, North Carolina wasn’t the agricultural powerhouse that South Carolina or other Southern states were with their larger plantations since they didn’t have a large shipping port like South Carolina or Virginia did. So this could have influenced the attitudes of people living there at the time differently than in the states where the act was more common.
There were several things that would make most people just shake their head in disgust, such as the selections of photos on display of the lynchings. Seeing someone beaten and hung is certainly a gruesome thing to view by itself, but what was more troubling about the photos were the looks of the people who were there to witness it. Some photos would show onlookers with big smiles on their faces as if they had just won a trophy. Another showed what appeared to be 100+ onlookers standing on a bridge, while two African Americans were hung from the bridge, and that photo was used as a postcard for that town. There was an enlarged article in which the Governor of Mississippi just allowed a lynch mob to take a man who was in jail to lynch him, saying he had “no power to stop them”.
The last section of the museum focuses on how these past times influence today, making the connections to how some laws are used to target minority populations, and the use of mass incarceration. There was a display that had a variety of local laws that were racially based, such as a Lousiana Law that authorized the closing of integrated public schools and providing payment of salaries to teachers who were imprisoned for resisting integration, that are still in the books for those different places.
In all, this museum is one that will definitely challenge your prior knowledge of such topics, and gives you an incredible opportunity to reflect. Right now, there is a large debate in this country about where our nation currently is on racial inequality, or how the past of the South is remembered, and while I don’t know if this place would necessarily change the mindset of those who deeply hold a belief that there currently is no such racial inequality or that slavery/segregation wasn’t as bad as it is made out to be, I would hope that they would at least have enough of an open mind to visit this museum. It certainly had an impact on my preconceived notions about the darker side of our nation’s history, and my hope is that it can serve as a step toward the healing of old wounds, as it could be an opportunity as a nation to say “Yes, these things did happen in the past, but we are going to work together to ensure that we do not allow this dark chapter of our story to repeat itself.
After the Legacy Museum, I then went to see the Peace and Justice Memorial, which features a large structure in the center of the garden. This structure has many boxes hanging from the roof, with each box representing one of the counties that had a documented lynching occur, and on the box would be the county name, and the name of the victims and the date of their lynching. Some of the victims who were not able to be identified would be listed as unknown, and in cases of mass murder the inscription may refer to the number of victims as it may have been difficult to identify them all at the time.
The memorial does allow for photography, but bags are checked in at the entrance, and you are given a ticket to claim it upon return. The memorial experience begins with a path that leads you up to the highest point in the garden and of the area of the structure. Along the way you pass a statue that portrays a slave’s experience as they are bound together by chains.
Signs along the first path help to give context to the incidents of lynching as you make your way toward the structure of the memorial.
As the path leads into the memorial structure, the first sets of metal boxes sit on the ground while also attached to the roof, and as you walk around the structure, the boxes become higher and higher off of the ground, until a point in which you are able to walk directly under them. The metal boxes are sized to be about the size of a standard coffin, and the way that they hang seems to be done as a way of symbolizing what was one of the most common methods of lynching, being hung.
Further into the memorial, there were signs on the wall that gave some of the reasons for the lynchings, all of which would by no means justify someone being killed as a punishment.
In the center of the memorial, there is a symbolism as you look at the boxes surrounding you. This meant to be a representation of how many of the victims would be surrounded by angry mobs or onlookers who enabled these killings.
Upon exiting the main structure of the memorial, you then come to the area where duplicates of the same boxes in the memorial have been made. These are here for the counties to claim if they choose to, so that they can establish a memorial of the victims of lynching in their county.
As you walk through the rest of the trail back to the main entrance, there is a group of statues that includes one of Rosa Parks symbolizing the boycott of buses in Montgomery during the Civil Rights Movement. Further down the path, there is a sculpture which shows figures with their hands up and inside of a larger cement block. This is meant to represent members of the African American community who are accused of crimes simply because of being suspected due to the color of their skin. The reasoning for being inside of the block is to represent the efforts being taken by the community to be seen and heard about the injustice they face.
Having been to the museum before the memorial did help quite a bit with having a better understanding of the memorial and what it was meant to represent. As an overall experience, I feel that it would be hard to come to see these and not be affected by it in some way. Even if it wouldn’t be enough to sway your overall opinion of current issues and how the past is connected to them. As mentioned before, I truly hope that people will be willing to visit this with an open mind, even if they have difference beliefs about the issues presented, it may at least change how they view the beliefs of others. There is a quote from Rick Steves in which he says “Travel is rich with learning opportunities, and the ultimate souvenir is a broader perspective.”, and I feel that coming to places like this, which may take us out of our comfort zone, is one of those learning opportunities.
So after having a more serious and thought-provoking morning, it was about time to hit the road to the Gulf Coast in the quest for more coasters! After a couple hours, the next stop would be the Waterville USA in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The main reason for this stop was their wooden coaster, Cannonball Run. This was a Custom Coasters International ride, which was on the smaller side in terms of length, but offered a classic out-and-back design for wooden coasters of the past. Unfortunately, this coaster was going to be closed after the end of the season, so this was my last opportunity to ride it before the closure. While it might be possible that the ride would be relocated, it is generally not as likely for wooden coasters as their steel couterparts. Upon riding, it was a bit of a rough ride, which may or may not be tied to the impending closure of the ride as they may have eased off on the maintenance of the ride, which is a shame because it had the potential to be a fun ride based on its layout. But at least I was able to get a ride on it before it was gone.
After a visit to ride Cannonball Run, it was back on the road, driving along the coast to Florida for a visit to the panhandle. With an hour drive to Pensacola, Sam’s Fun City would be the next stop. This smaller amusement park with an arcade and selection of rides is home to two coasters. The first would be the Emerald Coaster, a Pinfari Galaxy model coaster. This would be a first in coaster experiences for me as the car was weighted with sandbags so as to ensure that it would complete the course without stopping mid-course. It seems that they do this when there is only one rider, otherwise they would have probably kept the bags off.
The other coaster was a far smaller one, a Miner Mike from Wisdom Rides. Because of the way the ride works when it runs, the operator had me sit in the back row, and would make it go backwards up the back hill to build momentum for the first hill. I generally thought these were all made to be automatic, but this one gave the operator the ability to choose the direction of the ride. After a few laps forward, the operator asked if I wanted to go backwards, to which I said “Why not?”, and had a rather unique experience……a backwards Miner Mike!
The final stop of the day was about two hours further East to Panama City Beach for Race City. The park offers a couple of go-kart tracks along with some carnival rides. They also feature the Hurricane, an S.D.C. coaster which has several of the same model in other parts of the country, which features a rather steep and tight turn in the middle of the course after the biggest drop.
After a pretty full day of driving and stops in Montgomery and along the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida, it was time to drive back to Mobile for the night. The next day will be to one of the newest parks in the Southeast, and then a long drive to Northern Alabama for a visit to another smaller park along with a county fair stop with the hope of adding a carnival coaster to the list!