ASALH 107th Annual Meeting & Conference Recap

Black Health and Wellness Embedded in the History of Montgomery Alabama

The personal recap of the 3-day ASALH Meeting & Conference 2022 hosted in historic Montgomery Alabama is presented through the lens of two branch members: Eli M. Kirshner and Anita Russell.

Eli M. Kirshner, Branch Member
Eli operates the genealogical and historical research business, ExploreStory, which specializes in African-American family history, Jewish family history, and historical trauma/reparations. 

My Experience at ASALH 2022: Black Health and Wellness
Day 1

This was the first day of the conference. Everything felt so new and exciting for me. I attended a session in the morning where several historians presented their papers related to Black Healing and Resistance.

Ms. Anne Sherrell Bouie, an independent historian, spoke about how enslaved African-Americans utilized garden plots as both a source for survival (e.g. growing food) and for their own autonomy. Ms. Bouie highlighted that gardens, and the traditions related to their upkeep, “created a safe space … and also a functional space.” She referenced her own grandmother’s routine of sweeping the yard and taking diligent care of that important space. Ms. Bouie talked about how enslaved people created “family out of no family,” creating kinship ties that were spiritual and not just biological; Bouie provided historical context for the origins of play cousins, uncles/aunts etc.

Next, I attended a really interesting roundtable discussion titled “Traces of Black Health and Wellness in the Archives of Enslavement.” Dr. Mary Niall Mitchell from the University of New Orleans presented about the Freedom on the Move project – which centers the themes empowerment and liberation in its digitization of newspaper articles from the Antebellum south with wanted ads for freedom-seekers. Dr. Mitchell spoke about teaching such articles as primary sources for grade school students. She also discussed the Hard History framework and her work with K-12 educators.

Dr. Dallas Hanbury, the archivist for Montgomery County, Alabama,
analyzed the data of the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule for its use of four health conditions, several with severely outdated terms (i.e. blind, deaf/dumb, insanity, idiocy). He also showed us examples of doctor’s bills in estate files of white enslaver families as a means to learn about the physical and mental health/wellness of enslaved individuals who appear in probate records.

I had the true honor and privilege to attend the first day’s luncheon, and hear a moving appeal from the venerable Mr. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative. Mr. Stevenson called on all of us to tell the truth about U.S. history without fear, countering that “silence is not a pathway to strength.” He shared examples of the reconciliation tribunals in post-Apartheid South Africa and in Germany after the Holocaust – and how the steps taken to tell the truth about what happened in these countries have not been taken here in the United States.

For example, Mr. Stevenson made the powerful point that “you will not find any Hitler statues in Germany, or statues of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Yet, in Alabama, Jefferson Davis’ birthday is a state holiday, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is also Robert E. Lee Day, and our landscape is littered with statues of Confederate Generals.” Mr. Stevenson assessed the outcome of the U.S. Civil War as such: “the North won the war, but the South won the narrative war.” Mr. Stevenson reminded us that when we use the “r-words,” like repair, reconciliation, reparations, we tend to look over the fact that hard part – the truth-telling – must come first. He alluded to the fear that
many whites in the United States have about confronting theirs and their ancestors’ racist violence and terrorism and/or complicity with it.

Mr. Stevenson used this vantage point to frame his thoughts on much of the racist backlash to the 1619 Project, for example. Mr. Stevenson spoke about what it was like to create the National Memorial for Peace and Justice here in Montgomery – which commemorates the thousands of names of victims of lynching in the U.S. He also pointed out that the Great Migration is often overly categorized as a mass internal human migration of African-Americans between 1915-1975 to pursue economic opportunity, but not sufficiently as a massive refugee exodus of people fleeing racial terrorism at the hands of whites. For instance, Mr. Stevenson described the tenements on the South Side of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s as “refugee camps.”

In analyzing his own career as a tireless advocate for justice and as someone who tells the truth about mass incarceration and its roots in enslavement, Mr. Stevenson shared his own painful personal experiences: being racially profiled by judges, prosecutors, and others in the courtroom over the years who look at him and assume he is a defendant, as opposed to an attorney for the defense. “[As a Black American], navigating…the presumption [by whites] of guilt and criminality, for years and years, is exhausting,” Mr. Stevenson powerfully laid out.

From a genealogical perspective, Mr. Stevenson told us a story about when his grandmother took him as a boy to a one room cabin in a rural field and told him,
“just listen.” Her father was born into slavery, in that very cabin. Finally, Mr. Stevenson
delivered a reminder to never forget that we live on the grounds of genocide of millions of indigenous people by white Europeans, and we must always tell the truth about this as well.

Anita Russell, VP Media Relations of Dr. Edna B. McKenzie Branch of ASALH
Anita is the Founder/CEO of the Place to SOAR LLC, a social enterprise dedicated to personal transformation, activism through coaching, and antiracism activation.

My Experience at ASALH 2022: Embedded in the History
Montgomery Alabama
Day 1

The ASALH 107th Annual Meeting & Conference represented a major personal milestone for me. While this was my second time attending the meeting and conference live, it was my first time being in the city of Montgomery Alabama. The first thing on my agenda upon arrival was the Montgomery Bus Tour.

Touring the streets of Montgomery; passing through the town center which served as an auction block for the sale of Black human beings; Alabama State University students, boarding the tour bus and performing; seeing the work of Artist Michelle Browder, creator of the Mothers of Gynecology Monument to Enslaved Women Who Endured Experiments; and visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Lynching Memorial; all this set the tone of the conference itself.

Unfortunately, the tour ran a bit behind schedule and we were unable to attend The Legacy Museum without missing the luncheon featuring Bryan Stevenson as the keynote speaker under the title Social Justice at ASALH with Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Today and Beyond.

The culminating experience of Day 1 up to this point came when I heard the words of Mr. Bryan Stevenson, civil rights attorney, social justice activist, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. His words flowed across the audience like living water for all to soak up the truth hidden in full view.

He spoke about the need to speak the truth about U.S. history without fear, stressing the danger of silence. He shared examples of truth and reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-Holocaust Germany, emphasizing that such efforts have been lacking in the United States. He shared his own personal story as an advocate for social justice and learning from his grandmother to just listen and allow the past to speak to you.

All of this infused deeper into my 21st century consciousness, the importance of the historical context of lived experiences—embedding itself in my identity as a Black human being living in America. At the end of the luncheon I was compelled to return to The Legacy Museum for the part of the bus tour that had been cut short.

Leaving The Legacy Museum and walking back to the conference site this is how I felt in recounting the events of the day:

Mothers of Gynecology Monument to Enslaved Women Who Endured Experiments
“These women were tortured for the sake of healthcare and have been left out of the conversation,” Browder says of the enslaved women she honors in a new sculpture and mural…”

The Father of Gynecology…
(I won’t event mention the name)
“Well, what about the mothers?”
asks Artist Michelle Browder.
This glorious metal garden of
Black womanhood, motherhood, and humanhood
pays tribute to the magnificence of the female body
in its ability to carry, nurture,
and bring forth life by design.
It is a monument to enslaved women,
enduring experiments
conceived at the whim of an establishment that
neither understood, respected, nor honored
the magnificence of
Black womanhood, motherhood, or humanhood.
Indeed, what about the mothers of gynecology?

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice: National Lynching Memorial
“On a six-acre site atop a rise overlooking Montgomery, the national lynching memorial is a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in America and its legacy.”

Jars of soil from floor to ceiling,
representing names and souls,
on date after date,
in city after city,
in state after state,
of lynchings across America.

How do you look yourselves in the eyes,
when much of your existence is based on the lies
embedded in a belief system called white supremacy?
How do you look at souls in jars and not be moved
towards eradication of the lies
embedded in a belief system called white supremacy?
What’s wrong with your eyes that you can’t see the lies?

I am as different from you 
as night is from day
as the moon is from the sun
as a star is from a planet
as God is from humanity
because I can’t look at souls in jars
and remain inactive
or not weep for a nation
so mired in racism, violence and fear,
that I deny those very souls.

My ancestors call for me to do 
and be better than that.
As I walked among the suspended pylons
of historical narrative, 
I read name after name, 
on date after date,
in city after city,
in state after state,
of lynchings across America.

I walked, sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss
of racial hatred, violence, fear, and intimidation,
radiating outward from the nucleus of white supremacy.
Name after name, 
on date after date,
in city after city,
in state after state,
of lynchings across America.

Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration
“…a one-of-a-kind opportunity to investigate America’s history of racial injustice and its legacy — to draw dynamic connections across generations of Americans impacted by the tragic history of racial inequality.”

The Legacy Museum is quite near
the rail station and the town center,
where tens of thousands of Black people
were trafficked during the 19th century.
Passing through the sea of the middle passage
riddled with lives and souls on the ocean floor.
Whose parents were they?
Whose children were they?
Whose cousin, nephew, niece, auntie, uncle, or grandparent were they?
Did you even ask who they were?

Parenthetically speaking, to dehumanize others,
you first dehumanize yourself.
Self-dehumanization is the invisible fallout
of the belief system of white supremacy.

How can you look into the face of
parents, children, cousins, nephews, nieces, aunties, uncles, or grandparents
and deny their humanity without sacrificing your own?
How can you turn a blind eye and deny
the work of lies in your thoughts, beliefs, and ideas?
How can you turn a blind eye and deny
the work of lies in your words, actions, and behaviors?
Don’t you see—it all emerges from the handiwork
of racial hatred, violence, fear, and intimidation.

The word creates a haunting image
in my mind, body, and spirit.
An infant among the count of lynching victims.
And again, I say, parenthetically speaking,
to dehumanize others you first dehumanize yourself.
Self-dehumanization is the invisible fallout
of the belief system of white supremacy.

It is destruction 
from the inside out,
operating under the great lies 
of false supremacy and false superiority.
It’s there, hidden in plain view.
Don’t you see it?
All it takes is to open your eyes…

Film Festival: The Belly of the Beast
“This shocking legal drama captured over 7 years features extraordinary access and intimate accounts from currently and formerly incarcerated people, demanding attention to a shameful and ongoing legacy of eugenics and reproductive injustice in the United States.”

The last thing I did on Day 1 was attend the ASALH Film Festival featuring the film “Belly of the Beast” directed by Erika Cohn. Watching the film, I connected it back to The Mothers of Gynecology exhibit I visited earlier in the day. The film is an exposé of human rights abuses in the criminal justice system of California. It reflects the legacy of eugenics, forced sterilization, and reproductive injustice that prevails in the system of incarceration in the United States.

I had a lot to think about as I lay my head down for the night.

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

— Bryan Stevenson
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