Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
“Countries like Rwanda have found it necessary to build memorials to reflect on the atrocities of their past … We have yet to do this in the United States.”
Included in this week’s TED conference in Vancouver was a preview of a proposed national memorial in honor of the more than 4,000 African Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950.
The proposed Memorial to Peace and Justice would sit on a hill overlooking Montgomery, Alabama. The design features rows and rows of columns hanging from a ceiling, plus a field of identical columns waiting “in purgatory” to be placed around Alabama to mark the locations of lynchings.
“Over the next few years, this site will bear witness as each of these markers is claimed and visibly placed in those counties,” project designer Michael Murphy said in his talk. “Our nation will begin to heal from over a century of silence.”
The lynchings that took place across the American South are a particularly brutal part of the nation’s history with racism. Yet as CityLab’s Brentin Mock has written, efforts to build monuments memorializing the victims of racism have been minimal. In Montgomery, for instance, there are dozens of historic markers commemorating the Confederacy but barely a handful documenting the history of slavery.
“Countries like Germany and South Africa and Rwanda have found it necessary to build memorials to reflect on the atrocities of their past in order to heal their national psyche,” Murphy said. “We have yet to do this in the United States.”
At first glance, Murphy’s partnership with the civil rights group Equal Justice Initiative doesn’t quite fit in with his previous work, which has largely focused on global health and development. His nonprofit architectural firm MASS Design Group primarily works overseas, building hospitals and schools for underserved communities in Haiti and across East Africa.
But the Memorial to Peace and Justice has at least one thing in common with Murphy’s past projects: an emphasis on healing through architecture. In fact, a key component of the memorial’s design was inspired by Murphy’s first project building a hospital in Rwanda, a country still recovering from genocide.
In 2006, Murphy worked with with the humanitarian Paul Farmer and locals in the rural district of Butaro to build a medical center on what once was the site of genocidal violence. For locals, the hospital is part of a long healing process from atrocities that left more than 800,000 people dead.
Under the advice of local engineer Bruce Nizeye, Murphy’s team employed hundreds of people of all backgrounds to excavate the land. Master carpenters from the area trained locals how to build the furniture that would fill the hospital. And the walls were local volcanic stones, hand-cut by Rwandan masons.
“Bruce was using the process of building to heal, not just for those who were sick but for the entire community,” said Murphy. The process is known in Rwanda as ubudehe, which essentially means “community works for the community.”
While discussing plans for the Memorial to Peace and Justice, Murphy said, he looked back to the Rwanda experience and to ubedehe. Murphy revealed in his talk that EJI has been working with community leaders and descendants of lynching victims to collect soil from sites of the killings. The plan is to fill each column with the soil as if to finally lay the victims to rest—an act of “spiritual healing” and “restorative justice.”
After all, he said, buildings are not simply expressive sculptures. “They make visible our personal and collective aspirations as a society. Great architecture can give us hope, great architecture can heal.”