A New Sculpture Park Reexamines Slavery’s Legacy in America

by Julia Halperin

a look at the freedom monument sculpture park and simone leigh's brick house statue
Simone Leigh, ‘Brick House.’ Photo by Equal Justice Initiative ∕ Human Pictures

Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has spent much of his career studying how slavery has shaped American life. But until 2021, he had never visited a plantation. When he finally did travel to sites in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, he was “struck by how much the architecture of these spaces is organized around white supremacy,” Stevenson said. Compared with the “romance and prestige” of the big house, where the enslavers lived, the dwellings of enslaved people were, he recalls, “literally marginalized.” It would be impossible, he concluded, to shift visitors’ focus within these spaces to where it ought to be: the 10 million people who were enslaved in the United States. The experience set him on a path to develop a different way to tell the story of enslaved people in America. He decided to build an alternative: the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park, which opens in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 27.

It is the third and newest site developed by the Equal Justice Initiative. The first two—a museum that traces the evolution of the transatlantic slave trade to our age of mass incarceration and a memorial, the country’s first, to victims of racial terror lynchings—opened in 2018. The ambitious trio is an outgrowth of EJI’s work providing free legal representation for people on death row. (Stevenson chronicled one of his early cases in the bestselling 2014 memoir Just Mercy, which became a feature film in 2019 starring Michael B. Jordan.)

Stevenson is part of a handful of creatives and public intellectuals, including filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the director of the documentary 13th, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, and Elizabeth Alexander, the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose work argues that our popular understanding of America has been built on misinformation. According to the nonprofit Monument Lab, half of the 50 people most frequently commemorated by monuments in the U.S. were enslavers. But how do you teach a history that many people don’t want to learn? Having spent more than two decades arguing in front of juries that support the death penalty, Stevenson says, “You learn to think differently about what’s persuasive. You have to find people where they are and take them on a journey.”

Inside Freedom Monument Sculpture Park.

Photo by Equal Justice Initiative ∕ Human Pictures

The Freedom Monument Sculpture Park follows a winding path on the banks of the Alabama River in Montgomery, and culminates in a shining monument: two steel walls towering 43 feet overhead in a V shape recalling an open book. Carved top to bottom in letters smaller than a pinkie finger are the 122,000 surnames that nearly five million Black people chose for themselves when they were recorded for the first time as free individuals in the 1870 U.S. Census.

As a memorial to individuals (and their descendants) who survived a system that history has defranged and depersonalized for more than a century, the space is extraordinarily effective—and as grand in scale as any monument on the National Mall. Visitors can look up their family names using a QR code to determine how many formerly enslaved people shared their name and where they lived.

Before arriving at this triumphant moment, however, visitors traverse a sculpture park unlike any other. This is a cultural institution developed by lawyers. It does not present art objects as elusive, many-headed hydras that encourage multiple interpretations. The sculptures here—coupled with first-person narratives, historical information, and artifacts like 170-year-old dwellings from cotton plantations and a replica of a train car once used to transport enslaved people to the South—not only tell a story, but also make a powerful case: that the American history we’ve been taught is wrong.

Photo by Equal Justice Initiative

Freedom Monument Sculpture Park begins with a nod to the flourishing and complex societies of the Indigenous people who inhabited this land before Europeans arrived. There are sculptures by Indigenous artists Rose B. Simpson, Allan Houser, and others, accompanied by audio of the Maskoke tribe speaking their language. (EJI commissioned half of the art in the park; the rest was purchased or donated.)

The park then turns its focus toward Africa as the cradle of civilization. Next to opal stone sculptures of an African king and queen by the Zimbabwean artist Joe Mutasa, plaques recount the splendor of the kingdoms of Egypt, Kush, Aksum, and Mogadishu. Later sections bear witness to the translatlantic slave trade and the brutality of slavery. Wooden slabs record laws that permitted human trafficking and abuse (in 1827, for example, Missouri stated that homicide “shall be deemed excusable” if committed by accident in the process of “lawfully correcting a slave”). We also see notices that formerly enslaved people put in newspapers in an effort to track down husbands, mothers, and children from whom they had been separated.

Unlike traditional monuments to past horrors, which implicitly or explicitly reinforce how far society has come, EJI constantly reminds us how the past echoes in the present—especially if the past has not been reckoned with. In one powerful juxtaposition, a stainless steel sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas of two arms locked in confrontation—one with a police baton bearing down the other—stands next to a whipping post from Delaware. (Delaware became the last state to outlaw the use of whipping posts as a sanctioned sentence in 1972—the same year The Godfather was released.) “My work is a tool in [Stevenson’s] toolbox and a brushstroke on his canvas,” Willis Thomas says.

Photo by Equal Justice Initiative

The sculpture park opens with a work that had personal resonance for Stevenson: the American artist Simone Leigh’s Brick House. He first encountered the 16-foot-tall bronze bust of a Black woman whose Afro is adorned with cowrie shells at the 2022 Venice Biennale. In the midst of the buzzing international art festival, he felt the shock of recognition: there was his grandmother. “My first instinct was to run to the sculpture and wrap my arms around it,” he says. Weeks later, “I was preoccupied with it, I was having dreams about it, and we were told, ‘Oh no, you can't have it.’” After he convinced Leigh to visit the site and showed her the place of prominence he had in mind, she agreed to donate her personal copy.

Stevenson noted how different Brick House feels installed here—in a city that is both the first capital of the Confederacy and the hub of the Civil Rights Movement—than in a marbled hall in Venice. What feels novel about the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park is that the art isn’t an end unto itself, as it is in a conventional museum or exhibition hall. It is a means to a spectacularly ambitious end: historical reckoning and social change. The site will affect Black visitors, other visitors of color, and white visitors (like me) differently. But its approach is deliberately multifaceted. Walking along the path, you feel the material activating different parts of you: the landscape fuels the imagination, the statistics land in the brain, the large-scale sculptures resonate in the body, and the monument and first-person narratives hit the heart.

Photo by the Equal Justice Initiative

The didactic objective helps explain why the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park, by and large, resists abstraction. Plenty of sculptors not represented here—like Richard Hunt, Maren Hassinger, or Melvin Edwards—use abstraction to respond both to art history and the Black American experience in profound ways. Sites like Peter Eisenman’s 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin also deploy the form to communicate the weight of trauma. But, Stevenson suggests, America isn’t ready for that. We are too early in the process of reckoning with our history.

“When I went to Berlin and saw that memorial, I was very moved by it,” Stevenson says. “But they are trusting people to come into that space with a working knowledge of the Holocaust that allows them to convert that abstraction into something powerful. And I knew we couldn't do that. We wanted to avoid the ability to misinterpret. This isn't just conceptual—it is literally the history of people.”