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An Alabama sculpture park evokes the painful history of slavery

Alabama sculpture park evokes history of slavery
Alabama sculpture park evokes history of slavery 05:45

In Montgomery, Alabama, wedged between a maze of train tracks and the river, a long-neglected plot of land has been transformed. It's now home to the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park, the vision of lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson.

The 17-acre park, set to open this month, is filled with nearly 50 sculptures by world-famous artists like Kehinde Wiley, Simone Leigh. and Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, collectively evoking the history of slavery in America. "Artists have the ability to depict the humanity and the dignity of people, even in the midst of something brutal and violent," said Stevenson. "It's a tough subject. It's a challenging subject. And we wanted to use art to help people manage the weight of this history and engage in a more complete way with the lives of enslaved people."

An aerial view of the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park in Montgomery, Ala. CBS News

It's the latest project for Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), also based in Montgomery. For more than 30 years, Stevenson and his team have provided legal services to people on death row, to date helping overturn more than 140 convictions and sentences. He said understanding the racial injustices of the present begins by reckoning with the tortured legacy of the past.

"As they say, the truth can set us free," said Stevenson. "And I genuinely believe that there is something that feels more like freedom, more like equality, more like justice waiting for us in America. But I don't think we'll get there if we don't find the courage to talk honestly about our past."

Artwork at the Freedom Monument Sculpture Park. CBS News

Over the years, the EJI has expanded its mission, to build cultural sites in Montgomery, like the Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, focusing on America's history of lynching.

Stevenson said, "There were 10 million people who were enslaved in this country, and much of what I hope we can do is honor those who struggled and suffered, and those who endured and persevered."

That begins by taking park visitors across the Alabama River, a route taken by tens of thousands of enslaved Africans.

"You'd see these boats with enslaved people chained in the bottom and docking, just a half-mile from here," he said, "and then there would be what enslaved people referred to as the weeping time, the time where they had to fear being separated from children, separated from spouses."

The park mixes artifacts of slavery, like 170-year-old plantation dwellings and a whipping post, with powerful works of artistic imagination.

"Strike," by artist Hank Willis Thomas, evokes violence and resistance. "I'm also thinking about peace and resolution," said Thomas. "In this case, the gesture of just stopping the brutality begins the opportunity for us to find peace."

"Strike," by artist Hank Willis Thomas. CBS News

That theme of resilience continues down the pathway to the park's centerpiece: a 43-foot-tall monument, filled with names, designed by Stevenson himself.

"The names come from the 1870 census," he said. "That was the first time that formerly enslaved people could claim a name that would be recognized by the government, that would be recorded for history."

"People mostly think that they got all those names from their enslavers, but that's not necessarily true?" asked Whitaker.

"No," said Stevenson. "Only about 40% of adopted names were associated with an enslaver, to kind of maintain these kinship lines that had been created on plantations – brothers, sisters, cousins. They wanted to stay connected and they needed a name to bring that together."

In total, there are 122,000 surnames on the wall, including Whitaker's own.  "Wow. That's moving, man. That's moving. And with one T! Those are my people! Those are the one-T Whitakers!"

Correspondent Mark Whitaker and EJI director Bryan Stevenson at the National Monument to Freedom, a 43-foot tall, 150-foot long wall that memorializes the names of enslaved people freed following the Civil War. CBS News

Then and now, Stevenson said, the towering memorial is also a metaphor for the hope of a better future in the distance: "We will continue to struggle for the freedom that you died for – that's what I think we owe those who've suffered before us."

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Story produced by Sara Kugel. Editor: Carol Ross. 

See also: 

Confronting history, to heal a nation 07:56
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