The legacy of a last name: A new memorial park honors the last names of the formerly enslaved

"Mama, I hurt my hand," by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, bronze, 2023, during a media tour of Equal Justice Initiative's new Freedom Monument Sculpture Park. The park memorializes African Americans' centuries-long fight for freedom in Montgomery, Alabama.

"Mama, I hurt my hand," by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, bronze, 2023, during a media tour of Equal Justice Initiative's new Freedom Monument Sculpture Park. The park memorializes African Americans' centuries-long fight for freedom in Montgomery, Alabama. (Vasha Hunt, AP via CNN Newsource)


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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A new sculpture park that memorializes African Americans' centurieslong fight for freedom – from slavery to modern day – has opened in Montgomery, Alabama, the original capital of the Confederacy.

The Freedom Monument Sculpture Park honors the millions of people who were enslaved in the United States and their descendants' ongoing fight for equality. The 17-acre park features sculptures hewed by a mix of world-renowned and emerging artists chosen by Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Stevenson, 64, is an acclaimed Harvard-educated lawyer, author and social justice activist. His work has led to "reversals, relief, or release from prison for over 140 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row," according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

And in recent years he's worked to memorialize the legacy of enslaved people, Jim Crow and racial injustice in America through the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Sites in Montgomery.

"We wanted to create a space that could talk honestly about the lives of enslaved people," Stevenson said of the sites. "We want to document it all."

At the heart of the park is the National Monument to Freedom, a 43-foot-tall terracotta-colored wall that displays the more than 122,000 last names of the newly freed Black Americans recorded in the 1870 U.S. Census.

That census was the first to list the surnames of the formerly enslaved following the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.

"A surname reflects legacy," he said. "It reflects status. It reflects that you are someone capable of creating your own space in the world, leaving your own mark on the world, something that was denied to enslaved people."

Stevenson says he designed the 155-foot-long wall to look like an open book.

Before emancipation, enslaved people were recorded as property. In most cases, those records did not include last names; instead, they included first names and monikers given to enslaved people by their enslavers.

When the formerly enslaved were legally permitted to choose their last names, only 40% chose the last names of their former enslavers — possibly to maintain familial connections, according to Stevenson.

Others chose names connected to historical figures, acquaintances, or people in their lives, according to researchers. The most common last names chosen in the 1870 census were – Johnson, Smith, Williams, Jones and Brown, according to Equal Justice Initiative'a analysis of census records.

A winding path leads visitors though a garden of artifacts. Life-sized sculptures of a woman and children in a cotton field are paired with a sculpture of a chromed arm holding a police baton. Stevenson says the park is designed to tell a continuous story, instead of detached installations. He added the park is part of a "path to something better."

"What sculptors and artists have helped us do is to depict the brutality of slavery but the humanity of the enslaved," Stevenson said.

The Equal Justice Initiative's National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in 2018. It captures the brutality and the scale of lynchings throughout the American South. More than 4,000 Black men, women and children were killed by white mobs between 1877 and 1950. Most were in response to perceived infractions – walking behind a white woman, attempting to quit a job, reporting a crime or organizing sharecroppers, CNN previously reported.

In 2021, the Legacy Museum expanded and opened a new space to tell the story of racial injustice from enslavement to mass incarceration. Visitors can listen to first person accounts of both.

"I think to know that you are the heir of people who found a way to survive, who found a way to overcome all of the hardship who found a way …. to love in the midst of all of this is something that, that should generate pride," Stevenson said.

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Victor Blackwell and Devon M. Sayers

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