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Freedom on the River | Freedom and "Unfreedom"

March 15, 2018

The theme of freedom, or rather “unfreedom,” was taught when we visited Slave Haven and the Civil Rights Museum. Slave Haven reminded all of us how truly horrendous the lives of slaves were. One insight that we gained through the African section was the realization that Africans forced into the Transatlantic Slave Trade weren’t sitting in their countries living their simple lives waiting for white people to come teach them the rights and wrongs of the Western World. Instead, they were kings, queens, fathers, mothers, families who were dragged out of their homes and communities to become property in a deeply flawed system.The boats they were forced onto from Africa to the United States were crammed, unsanitary, and the enslaved Africans were treated worse than animals. We learned how many jumped overboard in order to gain freedom from captivity and to reconnect their spirits with their lost family and friends as well as how many bodies were simply dumped into the Atlantic along the way. It also reinforced the fact that southerners used loopholes and propaganda to make freed slaves feel like second class citizens. For example, loopholes in the law helped people arrest former slaves for small crimes such as loitering without a job and force them back into slavery. Also, political cartoons were made in an attempt to shame the former slaves. We saw direct evidence of such cartoons on the “stereotype wall” in Slave Haven. It depicted images from times directly after slavery mocking African Americans for stereotypical physical features, as well as using watermelon, a positive and necessary part of black culture, to be mocked and ridiculed. But the most astounding parts of the “stereotype wall” were the depictions and blatant racism from modern times, many of which that were so similar and contain the same messages from the ones that were from times that we now describe as backwards. It was astounding that some of these images were dated 2009. Slave Haven helped us see how racism suppressed people’s freedom, even after slavery was abolished.

The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel talked more about the privileges taken from the African Americans after slavery had been abolished. This included the “Jim Crow Laws,” which perpetuated segregation in transportation and other facilities and how many people had freedoms taken away that made them feel less than human. We learned about the Civil Rights Movement and how important figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped the voices of African Americans be heard through non-violent protests and persistence. The museum also talked about the approach of other civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, and the actions they took. Furthermore, the museum offered a unique view into the assassination of Martin Luther King and how it affected the city when people fell into mourning, while also fueling another troubling age of the civil rights movement. The museum is actually the site of King’s assassination, with his room reconstructed as it looked on April 4, 1968, and the balcony spot where he fell marked with a flower wreath. The museum continues on to elaborate on the new age of civil rights where there was a push for peace in King’s image as well as a push for violent action in outrage of the murder. Across the street is the Legacy portion of the museum where James Earl Ray stood and purportedly shot Dr. King. The museum also examines the many controversial theories about the assassination, leaving the visitors to draw their own conclusions. This allowed for an interesting view into the civil rights movement from its roots to its continuation today and was a truly impactful experience for us all.

After a deeply emotional and thought-provoking day, we went on a tour of “haunted Memphis,” which shed much new light on the history of the city, from the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 through many more highs and lows of Memphis days gone by. We were all soundly spooked when we walked through the halls of Earnestine and Hazel’s, known as one of the most haunted buildings in Memphis. This day of heavy emotions of many kinds made us feel ready to serve and lighten our moods with the activities planned for the next day.