Reflecting on the Legacy of Slavery and Racism

The following excerpt is authored by Lincoln Mondy, AFF’s Program Officer, and focuses on a recent staff and board learning trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Sites in Montgomery, Alabama. To read the reflection in its original unedited form, access Lincoln’s newsletter: The Creative Abolitionist.


Instead of focusing on the atrocities of enslavement and racial terror as artifacts of the past, the museum and connected sites frame these practices as the foundation for our current realities. Visitors are not left to mindlessly digest trauma. They are empowered to see how it’s all interconnected, guided by the dehumanizing myths of racial difference that have seeded the ground for white supremacy to endure. This is not by accident if you’re aware of the Equal Justice Initiative’s long, active, and vital role in challenging prisons and punishment in this country. Since 1989, EJI has represented people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. Walking through the exhibit, it’s hard not to feel the same sense of urgency, care, and commitment that is surely required by their staff lawyers in order to work in the bowels of our punishment system — death row.

Legacy Museum

Even as the museum spans a massive timeline (400 years), the space erases those periods that transform the atrocities of the past into long-gone sins that have no lingering scents by offering truth-telling commas, semicolons, and asterisks for further consideration.

As you move through time, words and connections are clear. Precise language is offered to unlock individual aha moments. Language is also used to clear up popular narratives that have a deep-seated hold on our collective consciousness. For instance, when you hear the words “the Great Migration,” you may, like myself, have mental images of jazz, artistry, and bravery. Black people moving to the big city for new opportunities, making a way out of no way. Sure, but the truth-telling facts inside the museum challenge you to reconsider the migration for what it was: refugees fleeing racial terror.

Legacy Sites

EJI rightfully understands that you can educate a person all day long, but if you don’t provide accurate language that can break through propaganda, intentional silos, and vague platitudes, it’s a fool’s errand. Space is given to challenge commonly-held shared language so that even if a person’s entire life isn’t transformed by the experience, at least the intent of the learning can leave through words.

The museum is almost in a 1on1 conversation with you, cataloging all the historical events you should reconsider and reflect on.

  • It may be known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but it was, more accurately, the global human trafficking of 13 million people.
  • Reconstruction? Oh yeah, the 12-year period following the Civil War where a well-funded and power-gripping white upper class worked overtime to enshrine white supremacy into law.
  • Yes, the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865 and does outlaw slavery, but the organized and well-funded white resistance allowed it to flourish for another century. Oh, and the 13th Amendments’ exception to slavery and involuntary servitude: prison labor. 

Legacy Sites Monument

The narrative throughout the experiences of enslavement, racial terror lynching, segregation, and mass incarceration is clear and consistent. The design is both Brutalist and organic at the same time. There aren’t sharp corners in the exhibition that curtail off sections — there is only one path in and one path out. You begin in a dark room, underwater, with waves crashing over you via visceral audio, visual, and lighting design. You’re reminded that in addition to the 13 million Africans who survived their kidnapping by boat, nearly 2 million souls died horrific deaths in vast, dark seas along the way. While the design asks you not to look away, the wide halls and variety of learning materials around the room (e.g.,video, film, holograms, text) offer reprieve when you need it.

As you navigate the space, you unexpectedly go from rooms with supersized “auction pamphlets” filled with advertisements from slave owners describing the bodies and behavior of their state-designated property to a theater asking you to honor Mamie Till’s wishes and not look away at how racial terror and white supremacy disfigured her son, Emmett. Then you’re guided all the way up to mass incarceration. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like a leap at all. After the mass incarceration era, the path leads to a majestic, copper-ceiling room asking you to pause and reflect. The last room is a colorful art gallery right before a bustling museum lobby — another intentional design choice focused on acknowledging and honoring the horror you confronted.

Peace and Justice Memorial Center

When I exited the Legacy Museum, I was comforted by the dozens of Black church youth groups in matching t-shirts I had to maneuver through. I was comforted thinking about the thousands of vans filled with Black children, who are being failed by systems supposedly concerned with their education and welfare, arriving in Montgomery for their summer trips.

Maybe they will not step out of the van with the same enthusiasm of a holiday morning, but I do know they will be offered truth-telling that can unlock an individual journey of mourning and commitment and, ultimately, usher in a collective reckoning.

Movement Partner Spotlight: Youth First Initiative

Hernan Carvente Martinez of Youth First Initiative explains what abolition means to him, what a world without youth prisons looks like and what it will take to get there.

A Conviction is Not Justice

Dear Community,

This week we heard a verdict that delivered some justice to George Floyd’s family, to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities in the U.S., to Minnesotans of all races and creeds, and Black communities worldwide. Shortly thereafter, we were barely unable to exhale when we heard of the violent taking of the life of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, who called the police for support only to have her life taken at their hands. I know I speak for the AFF staff in sharing that we, like many of you, are holding complex emotions amidst overwhelming grief…for George, Ma’Khia, Daunte, Adam and for the countless others across generations who we’ve lost to police violence.

I want to lift up George Floyd’s family — nothing can ease your pain. Our deepest condolences and desire for healing and repair. I want to lift up Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old Black girl who shot the videotape that documented Derek Chauvin’s brutal murder of George Floyd.

I want to lift up the Black Lives Matter movement, countless organizers and allies who took to the streets, and the folks in community who made it their business to demand justice — all with the purpose of honoring George’s memory, deepening their personal commitment to the fight for racial justice and bravely dismantling white supremacy one interaction at a time.

I want to lift up people-power and acknowledge those who saw injustice, and spoke out against it with their bodies, through their organizing, their art-making, their donations, their work at the polls, their prayers, their love and their truth-telling.

I want to lift up the jury — six white and six Black/People of Color — who together were able to ensure that accountability at the hands of our legal system could be realized. It was not that long ago that juries let off George Zimmerman, Daniel Pantaleo (who killed Eric Garner) and countless others (police and civilians) who haven’t been held accountable.

It was painful to explain to my children as we awaited the verdict that just a few short decades ago, unpunished deaths of Black people were social events called lynchings in our country. They were filled with joy and celebration for some white communities and terror and deep pain for Black and Indigenous and People of Color communities. At their young ages, my children were skeptical but more hopeful than I was for justice. To this day, the rage and sorrow I felt 30 years ago for Anthony Baez and Amadou Diallo as a young girl in the South Bronx — the lesson that I lived in a place that allowed unpunished police violence — was imprinted in my being forever. This week’s verdict is held amidst the memories of countless incidents of state-sanctioned violence against BIPOC communities. Grantee partners like Movement for Black Lives, Make the Road NY, Communities United for Police Reform, Live Free Campaign, Young Women’s Freedom Center, among so many others, have the track record to prove that this demand for justice continues to be a long road.

I wish I could feel a sense of gratification about this verdict, but all I feel is deep grief and loss. Our current justice system can’t undo the harm and loss of life. It can’t prevent future harm or police violence. It won’t bring back George, Daunte, Adam, Breonna, Ma’Khia, Anthony or Amadou. Only an altogether different system of community safety and care — the abolition of punitive systems like police and prisons — can deliver justice, safety and a guarantee for a deep regard for human life.

I send you all solace in the grief and strength for our collective fight. I send my deepest sympathy and bittersweet acknowledgement to our Black, Brown and Indigenous family. Our lives have intrinsic value. It is in moments like this when our connection, conviction and organizing — our songs, prayer and ancestral music — come to lift us out of the abyss.

Now is the time for philanthropy to deeply resource BIPOC-led frontline organizations that are advancing abolitionist strategies, healing justice and long term power building for BIPOC communities. It is time to open the floodgates of resources that have historically been locked away and fund well beyond the IRS-required 5 percent. People’s lives are literally on the lines — BIPOC-led organizations need robust resources to turn the tide and powerfully defend communities while building the community-based safety alternatives that render prisons and policing obsolete.

M4BLIn closing, I want to direct you to a statement from the Movement for Black Lives, on what true justice for George Floyd looks like and how we can continue to push the movement forward. To support Black-led organizations in Minneapolis and across Minnesota during in this critical moment, consider giving to:

Be on the lookout for updates to this blog post about action steps philanthropy and communities can take as directed by our movement partners.

In hope and justice,
Manuela Arciniegas, Director

Grantee Spotlight: Danielle Sered of Common Justice

Danielle Sered

Danielle Sered envisioned, launched and directs grantee partner Common Justice. The organization develops and advances solutions to violence that transform the lives of those harmed and foster racial equity without relying on incarceration.

Sered has just released Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration and a Road to Justice, a groundbreaking, insightful book that explores the idea of restorative justice, challenges our ideas of incarceration and offers readers a restorative approach to violent crime. We took a few moments to speak with Sered about her book, the future of mass incarceration and our justice system and how past experiences have shaped her.

Can you tell us about a time when you personally had to reckon or deal with the idea of punishment? What did this early lesson teach you and how does this live in your personal work as a leader?

As an adolescent, I made the kinds of mistakes adolescents make, and a handful of them landed me in the criminal justice system. In the most serious of those instances, I was met with mercy and my dear friend and codefendant (a young Black man) was met with severe punishment. I learned then about the racial disparities in the criminal justice system as someone who benefited from them.  

I left that experience knowing two things that would take me a long time to figure out how to live into:

(1) that it was my job from that day forward to make racial inequity my enemy, to find and join with those who were fighting it and to persist in that fight until we won or I died, whichever came first; and

(2) that system actors in the criminal justice system have an extraordinary amount of discretion and can act humanely when they choose to—which means that while legislative work is critical, the culture change work that affects those actors and the broader pressures that constrain and shape their behaviors are critical to large scale reform.

Can you tell us what is the primary message of the book and why it’s important at this time?

As consensus and momentum to end mass incarceration have grown, the current reform narrative, though compelling, has been based on a fallacy: that the United States can achieve large-scale transformative change (that is, reductions of 50 percent or more) by changing responses to nonviolent offenses. But in a country where more than half of its population are incarcerated for crimes of violence, we will not end mass incarceration until we stop avoiding the central challenge of displacing prison as our primary response to harm.

When efforts to reduce the nation’s use of incarceration move beyond a focus on nonviolent crime, they face a wide range of deep-seated and well-known challenges, both political and practical. Such efforts come up against the continued salience of “tough on crime” and “law and order” rhetoric. There is also the limited power of data as a tool to shape public opinion, deep misconceptions about who crime survivors are and what they want, persistent tentativeness of forward-thinking elected officials to enter this terrain, and the need to develop capacity to foster and demonstrate solutions that can take its place.

Crossing the line and dealing with violence also opens up a range of possibilities not otherwise available—possibilities that will be even more essential in the current political landscape. It allows people to think holistically about the communities profoundly affected by violence and incarceration, not just about small segments of those neighborhoods. It allows people to center the needs of crime survivors in their vision, not tiptoe around them or engage them in a limited instrumental fashion. It also allows people to envision a justice system that is not just smaller, but truly transformed into the vehicle for accountability, safety and justice that everyone deserves.

What does the U.S. have to reckon with in order to pave a healthy way forward?

We have to reckon with our centuries-old history of racism and racial inequity and its persistence into the present. We have to acknowledge that the growth of mass incarceration is part of a continuous pattern of harm dating back to slavery and colonization, and we have to have the integrity, honesty, and courage to acknowledge those harms and engage in a process of repairing them.

What is our movement currently missing or not seeing that is really important to help build out this road ahead?

We have too long bought into the myth that survivors want prison and that prison heals them and keeps them safe.

To the contrary: survivors know better than anyone else the limitations of prison as a tool to produce safety. They have paid for that failure with their own pain. When we get past the distortion of survivors’ pain and needs in the public discourse, we find that we—those of us who want something different and better than the system as we know it—are the majority. When we know that, we can stop acting like the outlier radical thinkers we have been told we are and instead behave as powerful majorities do: as a group capable of insisting on change and ushering in a better way.

The Andrus Family Fund is proud to partner with Common Justice in the fight for racial equality without incarceration. To learn more about Sered and her work, listen to this Out of the Margins podcast episode or read this blog post.

#HayOtraForma: Another Way to Realize Justice

Over the past few years, I have tried to make #HayOtraFroma trend on social media. This hashtag is so relevant to me because it literally means that there is another way. In my professional and personal circles, we wholeheartedly believe that there is another way to do our work, care about this planet and live and fight for just communities and sustainable societies. We believe in loving our communities and healing from historical traumas. We believe in the power of speaking our truth. We know that #HayOtraForma.

I entered the new year with hopes of resolutions and change—both for myself and for the world. I hoped that this year would bring a bit of respite from the onslaught and offense that our current political climate constantly hurls. Yet, we are faced with the reality of our current discourse which does not aim to move us to another way, but to move us back to a time of fantasized greatness and forward into a day that democratic principles and institutions are but a distant memory.  We are no longer in a time of innuendo or hidden slight, but faced with an ever-growing insult to our psyches and a silence so deafening that—though it should stop us in our tracks—it does not surprise many of us. To this we welcome 2018 and, yes, I say more than ever there must be another way: #HayOtraForma.

As I sat with my 92-year-old grandmother this weekend, I realized it is she who teaches me that there is another way forward. Born a few decades after the United States colonized Puerto Rico, her life and stories of struggle and triumph make me hopeful. Her stories are of a feminism that is simply lived and not necessarily broadcasted. Her vocal reaction to the cruelty against our communities reminds me that we must create another way and invoke poet Nikki Giovanni’s words when we say to this moment: “…your desires will not be honored this season.”

We at the Andrus Family Fund understand that change is gradual and movements take time to cultivate. What does it look like when we really practice Dr. King’s philosophy to “develop and maintain the capacity to forgive?” Can we embed those beliefs and actions in public policy instead of hateful and punitive laws that continue to target certain groups and give no sense of hope?

Over the past few months, I have had the honor and privilege of speaking to individuals—through our latest podcast series—who know that “something else is possible.” Recent guests on our Out Of The Margins podcast have included Executive Directors of two incredible organizations: Jody Kent Lavy of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and Danielle Sered of Common Justice. We concluded the series with an emotional conversation with Xavier McElreth Bey. A fierce advocate for ending juvenile life without parole and harsh sentences for young people, Xavier exemplifies what is possible when we deeply believe, see, and practice #HayOtraForma.

I encourage you to listen and share our conversations on Out Of The Margins. Our most recent episodes are available here and on iTunes, Soundcloud and Stitcher.