Continuing our family mission to engage in the history that surrounds us here in Montgomery, Sarah and I took Anna Elizabeth to the Rosa Parks Museum during Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend for her first visit there. We know that she is really too young to comprehend much about the museum. She was far more interested in the “time machine” robot in the Children’s Wing than she was in listening to anything that was presented in the exhibit. However, we want make sure that she engages in the history of our country at a young age — even the parts that make us uncomfortable. In my history classroom, I used to have a poster that stated “You cannot know where you are going until you know where you have been.” That quotation appeared below a photograph that depicted the Jim Crow segregation signs that appeared on restroom doors throughout parts of the country during the 1950s and early 1960s. I would always encourage my students to realize that one of the powerful reasons to study history is to understand how the events of the past impact where we are today and to process how we can respond to those events so that we might avoid repeating past injustices.
Unlike the visits to the Dexter Parsonage and the Freedom Rides Museum that I mentioned last week, I had been to the Rosa Parks Museum before. So I thought I knew what to expect. But I encountered several aspects of the museum that I didn’t know about. We had a bit of a wait before entering the Children’s Wing so we went upstairs to the research room. I discovered a beautiful presentation of the timeline of the bus boycott and all of the events and individuals connected to that time in Montgomery’s history. If you have a chance to go to the Rosa Parks museum, be sure to check out the research center.
Furthermore, I learned that the museum also hosts traveling art exhibits that are connected to the mission of the museum. Right now, that space is occupied by a powerful exhibit titled “Cash Crop” by artist Stephen Hayes. The art installation occupies the full exhibit room and it is designed to force the viewer to confront the horrors of the international slave trade. It includes 15 life-size sculptures of slaves in chains. On their backs are depictions of a crowded slave ship that carried slaves from Africa to the Americas. To simply say that it was impactful doesn’t really do the exhibit justice. You have to enter the room and see it for yourself. We often confront images of slavery in history books, but to encounter these life-size models reminds you that enslaved peoples were fully human even though they were subjected to an institution that denied their basic identity as a human. Moving through the room was uncomfortable (and I’ll admit..especially uncomfortable with a three year old tagging along), but I think that the exhibit was a powerful reminder how we must lean into the discomfort rather than shy away from it if we are truly going to be able to move forward.