Alabama Is ‘Uneasy’ Over Slave Trade Markers Going Up In Montgomery

Slave trade markers stirring things up in Montgomery, AL.

This week, three new historical markers went up in Montgomery, AL to highlight the city’s role in the slave trade. This makes some people feel ‘uneasy.’ Photo from the Equal Justice Initiative.

On Tuesday, the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative will dedicate three new historical markers in Montgomery, Alabama. They stand where the slave trade took place and highlight the city’s role in the trade. At the same time, the group is releasing a report that includes this larger fact: 435,000 slaves were held in Alabama before the Civil War.

Getting support for the slave trade markers was a challenge.

Memorializing this history was a struggle. While the Alabama Historical Association noted the accuracy of the research, it refused to sponsor the slave trade markers because they spark controversy. Eventually, the state-run Black Heritage Council provided backing.

To his credit, Montgomery’s mayor, Todd Strange, eventually approved of the project. Still, the subject makes him ‘uneasy’. One of his concerns was that slave traders are named on the markers. Their descendants may still live in the area.

The markers are just starting to receive attention. Until Tuesday, they hadn’t been publicized. Their dedication will be a high-profile moment. Cast members from the new movie “12 Years A Slave” are attending. The movie is creating unease and controversy around the nation, and around the world, due to the unrelenting suffering that it portrays.

Issues surrounding the slave trade raise larger questions for the world.

Alabama is not alone in grappling with a racist past. Paul Gilroy of The Guardian writes this about the movie: “Rather than fade away, racism – rooted in past injury – has proved both durable and potent …” He broadens the picture by adding that director Steve McQueen is challenging the continuing “enslavement of people for profit”.  This “allows no happy ending because slavery and unfree labour are still far from over.”

The Equal Justice Initiative  is also concerned about the far-reaching effects of slavery. The organization represents the poor and imprisoned. Its director, Bryan Stevenson, sees our current high imprisonment rate as an extension of the same attitudes. He told the New York Times of future plans to promote public examination of the issues. If Alabama is uncomfortable now, just wait. The group’s next project is putting up memorials to mark the sites of lynchings in Alabama.

Other parts of the South are making some progress toward recognizing the role of slavery in their pasts. Richmond, Va. recently created a ‘slave trail’ with 17 markers. They show the locations of slave markets and a slave jail. A national slavery museum will eventually open in the city. To promote tourism, Charleston, S.C. is planning an International African-American Museum.

But dealing with the relatively remote history of slavery is less difficult than honestly confronting the region’s more recent history. Memories of lynchings and a current, continuing level of injustice are still festering problems. Just two years ago, the Equal Justice Initiative sued Alabama’s Department of Corrections to win the right for a prisoner to read “Slavery By Another Name”. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for exploring the history of ‘convict leasing’.

Racism isn’t over, but neither is slavery.

Commentator Paul Gilroy further writes, “Slavery has been written off as part of the pre-history of our world. Contemporary capitalism was shaped by its rational brutality but the banks, insurers and speculators who facilitated and expanded slavery have been able to project their activity as unsullied by a cruel and racist system that was as systematic as it was functional.”

The roots of our nation’s racism may have started with the slavery system, but the South is not alone in its unease about exploring that history. Our entire country seems still infected by its cruel injustices. And what if, indeed, “slavery and unfree labour are still far from over” — for us all?