The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened on a six-acre site on Montgomery’s Caroline Street in 2018, is a stark and overwhelming reminder of the generations of African-American citizens who experienced or witnessed the racial terror of lynching in this country. Within the setting that brings this dark history to life, visitors encounter 800 six-foot monuments that, according to the memorial website, “symbolize thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place.”
A companion site, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, opened at the same time in an 11,000-square-foot building on Coosa Street that was once the location of a slave warehouse. The museum, the website explains, “explores the history of racial inequality and its relationship to a range of contemporary issues from mass incarceration to police violence.”
The memorial and museum were created by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which was founded in 1989 by renowned attorney Bryan Stevenson and provides legal representation to people illegally convicted and unfairly sentenced while addressing other initiatives such as prison abuse, unequal treatment or criminal justice reform. Together, the EJI sites share the legacy of slavery, lynching and racial segregation in our communities and connect the dots to how this history influences today’s issues.
“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” EJI Director Bryan Stevenson explained. “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
These are topics that people far and near want to learn more about. In fact, the memorial and museum have brought significant attention to Montgomery over the last few years, and the tourism numbers began showing an impact during that opening year. “We saw about a 22 percent increase in expenditures by tourists,” according to Dawn Hathcock, Vice President, Destination MGM and the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. “We went up (in 2019) with expenditures going over a billion dollars. We have seen tourism-related jobs go up by 18 percent.”
During the first quarter of 2020, she added, “We were on track to pass those numbers.” The COVID-19 pandemic obviously altered that trajectory, but there’s no reason not to expect the activity to return to a high level when coronavirus concerns subside.
These statistics are collected and released by the Alabama State Tourism office, usually in May of the previous year’s tourism expenditures, and include spending on food, gas, lodging and ticket sales. The sheer number of visitors to the sites is another indication of impact. “In the first year and a half, they had roughly 700,000 people go through,” Hathcock said.
The memorial and museum are key pieces of Destination MGM’s strategy for increased post-COVID tourism in 2021, one that is, as Hathcock noted above, optimistic and is focused on reaching visitors searching for “purposeful travel.” She and her team are promoting the city as the historic hotspot it is, with emphasis on its world-changing happenings, including the formation of the Confederate government and then the birth of Civil Rights Movement in less than a century. Combined with the Rosa Parks Museum, Freedom Rides Museum, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached) and more, EJI’s memorial and museum make Montgomery a must-see cultural destination in the South.
And its reach goes far beyond local traffic and neighboring states in the region; the memorial and museum have also brought increased interest from major metropolitan areas in making visits to Montgomery. Hathcock noted that visits increased from the Northeast and West Coast, where Montgomery is not usually on the traveler’s radar.
The EJI has continued to add more for visitors to see, learn and experience. In 2019, an addition to the memorial came with a monument to victims of terror lynching or violence during the 1950s and includes such names as Emmett Till.
In early 2020, the EJI expanded its facilities further with the addition of the Legacy Pavilion at 400 North Court Street, which is a few blocks from the museum. A gift shop located in the Alley was transferred to the Pavilion, and an exhibit opened there on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. “I consider it kind of the hub,” said Tera DuVernay, Deputy Director of Museum and Memorial Operations, said of the Pavilion. Visitors can park their cars and take shuttles to the different sites. They can also enjoy a meal at the Southern cuisine restaurant, Pannie- George. The Pavilion is the second location for Pannie-George, which was begun by chefs in Auburn and serves a menu of soul food.
Although the restaurant has remained open, pandemic shutdowns led the EJI to begin an expansion on the Pavilion. The main gift shop was temporarily moved back to its Alley location, and construction began on additional exhibit space. “We’re anticipating really huge crowds post-pandemic,” DuVernay said. “We want to open up and make sure there’s new things to see.” The Transatlantic Slave Trade Exhibit will be returned, and other exhibits will be added. “We’re hoping the construction will all be complete during the fall of this year,” DuVernay said.
Both the museum and memorial share compelling stories, tales of truth that need to be told, and the city’s willingness to tell them is changing perceptions for the better. Hathcock expects this image boost will continue to have a positive effect on the city’s tourism business, which is a plus for all area residents. “The Museum and Memorial have put Montgomery on the national stage for all the right reasons and in front of people who might not have considered coming to Alabama or our city before so they can confront our history and learn from it in order to move on,” she said.
The Alabama Tourism Department’s most recent annual report revealed that Montgomery experienced record-breaking tourism growth for 2019, with $1.025 billion in total revenue. This marked the first time in Montgomery’s history that tourism growth for the city topped the billion-dollar mark, representing a 5.6 percent increase over 2018, a 22 percent increase in the past two years and an 83 percent increase in the past ten years.
This increase in spending directly impacted the city’s workforce, as visitors were responsible for 14,428 new jobs in the hospitality industry, an 18 percent increase in the past two years. With spending on hotels, restaurants, shopping and transportation significantly increasing, these numbers confirm that Montgomery is and continues to be an economic powerhouse for the state tourism industry.
The pandemic put the brakes on this amazing growth, but Destination MGM, The Chamber’s team devoted to marketing the city for leisure and business travel, sees bright lights ahead for 2021. “While COVID-19 has impacted the travel industry, we know that together we will prevail,” said Dawn Hathcock, Senior Vice President, Destination MGM. “Travel is a force that brings us together and transforms our lives for the better and moving forward, tourism in Montgomery will continue to be a powerful component of the city’s resurgence. We see big things for this year in terms of tourism.”
Tourism is not just about visitors; it has a major impact on residents as well, energizing the local economy through tax revenue, job creation, spending in area businesses and more. How major? We’re so glad you asked.
- $1.025 BILLION total tourism-related revenue (2019)
- 14,428 NEW JOBS in the hospitality industry (2019)
- MORE THAN 700,000 VISITORS to the EJI sites in the first 1.5 years