Walking in their Footsteps In Montgomery, Alabama

The former site of the slave auction block in Montgomery, Alabama.

By Rev. John Vaughn

For 48 hours, I joined the Auburn Senior Fellows in Montgomery, Alabama. At the core of this leadership development gathering were visits to the newly opened Legacy Museum and Peace and Justice Monument (aka the “lynching memorial”). Though I have visited Mobile, Alabama when I have engaged in grantmaking post-Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the ’90s, this was my first visit to Montgomery. The two major takeaways for me were:

I did not realize the central role that Montgomery played in the transport and selling of enslaved Africans. We actually stayed in a hotel that bordered the route where enslaved Africans were unloaded off of ships and trains, and marched up “Commerce” street to the auction block. Along the route were the warehouses where these men, women, and children were warehoused and divided as they awaited sale. I spent Tuesday walking the same route and in some of the same buildings that they occupied – ancestors I will never know by name.

The other was the de-construction of the romanticized myth of the “great migration” where Blacks left the South for jobs and a better life. Though some elements of this are true, what was clear to me was that a major impetus was a deep fear instilled by white terrorism. It was impossible to miss that overwhelming and widespread state-allowed terrorism perpetrated on Southern Blacks. The Peace and Justice Monument both chronicles and names of the thousands of those lynched, and lists counties where lynching was perpetrated. The motivations varied from looking at a white person the wrong way, the need to punish someone for perceived wrongdoing, too much success, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My father was a physicist born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He died when I was two years old. My mother was a psychologist born in Savannah, Georgia and raised in Washington, D.C. My mother’s mother was born and raised in Buena Vista, Georgia and were owners of the local “corner” store. I cannot remember what my father’s mother did because I came to know her when she was retired. We spent very little time talking about those elements of our past. It was only when my mother’s mother was 96 years old that I learned that she met my grandfather at a dance in Moultrie, Georgia. The stories of my immediate and extended family were more about living in D.C. and Louisville, and included many tales of misbehaving children that they like to tell over and over again. My mother’s cousin in Savannah has been more conversant about some of our family roots, but it has taken a lot of digging. It is as if we were conditioned not to remember.

Walking in my ancestors’ footsteps in Montgomery was a major step forward in remembering these details of the past and left me wondering what miracles enabled my family to actually survive. As I stood on Commerce Street, I was in awe and humbled that my brother, cousins, wife, sons and I represent the hopes, dreams, and aspirations for generations that refused to allow enslavement to have the last word.

Rev John Vaughn is Executive Vice President at Auburn Seminary.

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