We went to Montgomery, Alabama, to think about history, our country’s and our own. As a historian and a novelist, neither of us is especially adept at the confessional mode; it’s possible that we take pains to avoid it. We do talk a fair amount about race—we talk a fair amount about everything, since our friendship is of the cross-country, intensive-text variety—and, when the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened, in April, we began passing back and forth articles about them. In June, we had a chance to see them in person, and to spend a few days together. We knew that the museum and memorial would ask different things of black and white visitors, and that the trip would shake us.
From 1850 until the end of the Civil War, Montgomery was the Southern port most active in slave trading—even surpassing New Orleans, where an estimated hundred and thirty-five thousand human souls were auctioned between 1804 and 1862. The city’s past is inescapable on its sleepy downtown streets, almost deserted on a humid Friday afternoon. Markers draw attention to the curb where Rosa Parks stepped onto a bus and refused to give up her seat; to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., served as a pastor from 1954 to 1960; to the First White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis lived until 1861, when the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond.
At the intersection of Commerce Street and Dexter Avenue, once known as the “romantic center” of the city, stands the Court Square Fountain, topped with a corroded statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth and cupbearer to the Olympian gods. A nearby marker explains that this is the site where “slaves of all ages were auctioned, along with land and livestock, standing in a line to be inspected.” When it was placed at the fountain, in 2002, the city councilman Tracy Larkin said that the past is often “painful and embarrassing” but that it must be studied and known.