Relics have the power to galvanize and unify people for diverse ideological ends. A broad category of objects, relics can be anything from the body parts of holy figures to objects intimately associated with their lives. They have long been central to many religions, prized for their ability to transmit the aura and sanctity of those to whom they belonged. Relics of Saint Teresa of Avila were so valued, for example, that when her body was exhumed for canonization in 1622, clerics smuggled away her fingers and toes, sometimes in their mouths. But there are secular relics as well, from clippings of Marie Antoinette’s hair to the preserved corpse of Vladimir Lenin. Through sheer proximity to these relics, the faithful feel the full solemnity of the deceased’s presence and their greater impact on history.
I was reminded of the power of secular relics during a recent visit to Montgomery, Alabama, where the newly-opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice uses unlikely relics to force a reckoning with our history of racial violence, and where, in opposition, the First White House of the Confederacy exploits relics to whitewash that same history.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was constructed to honor over 4,400 African Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950. It sits just over a mile from the First White House of the Confederacy, formerly the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who owned over a hundred slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War. The proximity of these two sites reflects more broadly on Montgomery as a city of contested historical memory. Likewise, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., served as pastor from 1954 to 1960, is just a stone’s throw from a monument to the inauguration of Davis as president of the Confederacy; and the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative—a criminal justice reform nonprofit that runs the lynching memorial—is located in a former slave warehouse.
But a paired viewing of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the First White House of the Confederacy illuminates particularly well the chasm in how relics continue to be used to narrate—or silence—the interconnected histories of slavery, the Civil War, and the ideology of white supremacy.
Slavery has been altogether erased from the First White House of the Confederacy, save for unintended references.
Davis’s Montgomery home, which served as the executive seat of the Confederacy until 1861, was secured as a state-sponsored preservation project in 1897 thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Sophie Bibb Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The UDC, founded by southern socialites in 1894, led a large campaign of Lost Cause propaganda, distributing misinformation (including curriculum guides) nationally and installing revisionist public monuments throughout the South. The Lost Cause perpetuated the idea that slavery had been both a benign institution and peripheral to the cause of the Civil War, while simultaneously positing that the Confederacy was a patriotic movement initiated in defense of states’ rights.
Even before the Davis home was secured as a preservation project, the Sophie Bibb Chapter had already had the idea of a reliquary to memorialize Davis’s belongings. As a 1911 UDC pamphlet states:
One of the first undertakings of the Chapter was an application made to the Legislature, December 22, 1896, for a room in the State Capitol for preserving relics of the Confederacy. There being no room vacant, we were given the rotunda where we placed four cabinets. Three of these . . . have been filled with valuable relics, the fourth encases in glass that catafalque on which the remains of President Davis rested when carried through Montgomery on the way to Richmond to be interred in their final resting place.
This reliquary under the capitol rotunda was an early step in the UDC’s cultivation of a cult of Jefferson Davis. It served as the template for what would later become the permanent “Relic Room” of the First White House of the Confederacy, which is housed in a second-floor bedroom of the home.
Before arriving at that room, visitors are invited to peruse the first floor of the home. It is an amalgam of period furniture, objects actually owned by Davis, and assorted pamphlets and newspaper clippings that extol Davis’s virtues, such as one written in 1971 by Robert McHugh, editor of the Biloxi-Gulfport Daily Herald, entitled “Jefferson Davis: An American Patriot.” Slavery has been erased from the home altogether, save for unintended references. For example, if you squint at an engraved illustration of Davis being sworn in as president of the Confederacy that is hanging in the stairwell, you will see several enslaved blacks in his proximity.
Even a visitor entering the home with an awareness of the centrality of slavery to southern secession can become absorbed in the trappings of antebellum domesticity: a piano in the first floor parlor where one can imagine the Davis family sitting together for evening entertainment, the delicate quilts covering each of the beds, the lovingly sewn children’s clothes pinned for display next to a bassinet.
It is painfully mundane. And indeed, that is a critical lesson for the modern viewer: the quotidian nature of life in the South when slavery shaped its culture and built our country’s economy. In this sense, the First White House of the Confederacy has the potential to serve as an important lesson in how ideology has the power to normalize violence and injustice. But that is not the lesson it gives.
By the time I entered the Relic Room, the house had conditioned me to approach the intimate objects of Davis’s life with the solemnity and piety of a pilgrim. If the house is a reliquary to honor Davis, the Relic Room is its heart.
Several display cases contain personal objects touched and owned by Davis. “Hat worn habitually by Davis at Beauvoir,” reads one label. And next to it, a relic amplified by proximity to its owner’s death: “One of the last pairs of shoes worn by President Davis,” its label explains. Grooming tools such as hairbrushes are also displayed. Hair (along with teeth and fingernails) has long been privileged as a relic for how it endures long after the body has rotted.
Bob Wieland, curator of the First White House of the Confederacy, conceded in a recent interview that the house museum “could certainly tone down the celebration” of Davis. But he thinks it is important that the museum offer visitors “a positive taste, an old south taste, as the new comes up.” But Davis is not the only one who is immortalized in the First White House of the Confederacy. The Relic Room also houses portraits of a number of other eminent Confederate figures, among them Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan—a biographical detail omitted from the didactic material. Is this the “positive taste” of the Old South that Wieland has in mind for this state-funded museum?
While the First White House of the Confederacy obfuscates history with artifacts, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice unmasks it with 800 man-sized weathered steel pillars, each representing a county in which lynchings are known to have occurred. Below the engraved county name are the names of the county’s lynching victims and the dates of their deaths. Many victims are identified simply as “UNKNOWN.”
Almost all published images of the memorial are absent of people, communicating a sense of sepulchral aloneness. But when I visited the memorial on a July day just hours after having toured Davis’s former home, the heat was no deterrent to the large crowd queueing to pass through the memorial’s security checkpoint. Such caution is unnecessary for the First White House of the Confederacy, but is indispensable for a lynching memorial in the South, where even a sign commemorating the discovery of Emmett Till’s lynched body has been repeatedly shot up.
The Confederate White House needs no security, but it is indispensable for the lynching memorial, in a South where even a sign commemorating the discovery of Emmett Till’s body has been repeatedly shot up.
After passing through security, visitors are led to the memorial by an inclined path lined by narrative plaques that connect the histories of slavery, segregation, and racial terrorism. By the time visitors arrive at the entrance to the memorial at the top of the hill, they have already received more historical education than a visitor receives from the entire First White House of the Confederacy.
The memorial’s entrance initially calls to mind a classical colonnade, and visitors weave slowly and solemnly among the columns in the thick and humid air—air rarely punctuated by more than the sound of footsteps and faint whispers. The sheer number of columns makes focusing equally on each one impossible, and visitors devise their own ways to sort through the scale of the atrocity, often by looking for names (people or counties) to which they have some connection. I kept close watch for my home counties of St. Johns and Duval in northern Florida, learning when I found them that eight African Americans had been lynched where I grew up: Isaac Barrett, Bowman Cook, John Morine, Benjamin Hart, Edgar Phillips, Eugene Burna, and two whose names are unknown.
As one progresses past the first length of the monument and turns a corner, the ground slowly descends until the pillars hang fully above onlookers, conjuring the hanging corpses of victims. The meaning of the battered and deeply rusted steel now becomes clear.
While the shade of the memorial offers relief from the discomfort of the heat, this is soon replaced by the discomfort of straining one’s neck and eyes upward to see the counties and victims listed on columns dangling high above visitors’ heads. The physical strain experienced within this memorial is, I believe, by design. The somatic and optical engagement the memorial requires of visitors works in tandem with the psychological affront of being presented with the full scale of lynchings.
Several times I had to stop to regain my balance and rest my eyes. It was then that I observed other visitors also taking such reprieves and using them as opportunities to connect with those around them. Even these moments of relief, however, were interrupted by texts that run at eye level, listing the documented reasons of specific lynchings. Their absurdity horrifies: whistling, not calling a white man “mister,” vagrancy, laughing loudly, gambling. . . .
In the final stretch of hanging pillars, which completes the square plan of the memorial, visitors arrive before a clear container with dimensions reminiscent of a coffin, resting at ground level on a catafalque of weathered steel. The container is filled with soil collected from over two dozen lynching sites. It is, in effect, a reliquary that sacralizes this soil, and by extension lynching victims, whose bodies were often never recovered.
This reliquary is echoed in the memorial’s nearby Legacy Museum, also run by the Equal Justice Initiative, that has the broader scope of tracing historical links between slavery and mass incarceration. In the Legacy Museum, one wall displays glass jars that house soil collected from specific lynching sites. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has stated of this soil-collection project: “Soil is really a powerful medium for talking about this history. In many ways, the sweat of enslaved people is buried in this soil. The blood of lynching victims is in this soil. The tears of people who were segregated and humiliated during the time of Jim Crow is in this soil.”
The choice of soil as the relic to honor lynching victims also speaks to the power imbalance dictated by white supremacy. This skewed power structure not only determined the deaths of those lynched, but also determined what remains of their lives in the written and material record of history. Few personal belongings of slaves survive to this day, and archival references to enslaved people overwhelmingly take the form of inventories of property or bills of sale—records that define blacks as objects, not as subjects. Contrast this to the glut of Davis’s possessions readily repurposed as relics by the First White House of the Confederacy. The lynching memorial’s and Legacy Museum’s collections of soil draw attention to the overabundance of archival materials related to white-supremacist figures such as Davis relative to what remains of the enslaved people and lynching victims who lived and died in the world Davis fought to preserve. This imbalance is only amplified by the number of times “UNKNOWN” is engraved in place of a name on the hundreds of pillars.
But the soil reliquary resting below the engraved pillars in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice does even more. It also invites us to bear witness to these atrocities without again making spectacle of them. As Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection (1997) argues, repeating such displays risks reproducing their racial violence. In Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), James Allen highlights how spectacle was at the heart of racial terror campaigns, with lynchings frequently documented by photographers who sold their gruesome pictures as souvenirs for attendees. In contrast, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice mutes the perverse spectacle of lynching by forcing us to confront it through the mediation of metaphor, as well as auditory and visual stillness.
The reliquary of soil teaches us that when it comes to historical artifacts, less can not only be more; less can also be more accurate. The profusion of relics bursting from Davis’s former home seeks by sheer quantity to bury the sin of omission that continues to serve as the basis for Lost Cause propaganda. But though the narratives of the First White House of the Confederacy and National Memorial for Peace and Justice are antagonistic, they are not equal. The former is one of nostalgia for a time when white supremacy was codified in law. The latter is factual, laying bare the cost of the former’s regime of racial terror.
The soil reliquary of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice invites us to bear witness to lynching without again making a spectacle of victims’ deaths.
Reckoning with the cost of our country’s history of slavery and its legacies—convict leasing, Jim Crow, lynchings, black voter suppression, to name but a few—has been painfully slow in public education, even if there are some signs of progress. Just several months ago, Texas’s board of education voted to change how its schools will teach slavery. Until now, Texas schools have taught that sectionalism, states’ rights, and slavery (in that order of importance) were the causes of the Civil War, whereas they will henceforth teach “the central role of slavery in causing sectionalism, disagreements over states’ rights and the Civil War.” For a former Confederate state, this shift is significant.
Beyond the classroom, too, some institutions in the South are taking the lead in advancing honest narratives of slavery. The Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, for example, provides informative, impeccably researched tours and lesson plans about enslaved life on plantations, serving as a corrective to the profusion of plantations-turned-bed-and-breakfasts that advertise a return to the romanticized world of Scarlett O’Hara.
Perhaps one of the most effective gauges for advancements in public education about our country’s legacy of racism, though, will be one that the National Memorial for Peace and Justice has implemented as part of its own design. After passing the memorial’s soil reliquary, visitors are pushed back into the sunlight and heat with helping words from Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.” Turning the corner from these words, visitors encounter a field of 800 columns—replicas of those within the memorial, this time laid flat near the ground. They are empty coffins—reliquaries without surviving relics—awaiting their invitation to return home, where they are meant to be erected as county memorials to lynching victims.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s website, however, only a few dozen counties are currently in discussion to claim their column and, by association, their history. Meanwhile, as Montgomery welcomes mounting waves of tourists arriving for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, I will be curious to see if the First White House of the Confederacy repurposes its memorabilia to tell a historically honest narrative, or if it chooses to remain a relic of the Lost Cause propaganda that brought it to life and that continues to impede reconciliation with our past.