Picturing the Past

In Documentary, Mobile, Travel
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A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to go on a school-sponsored trip to Alabama, for a Civil Rights pilgrimage. The trip was led by one of our professors, an expert in the history of American Christianity and the Black Church. Over the course of three full days in Tuskegee, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, we immersed ourselves in some of the stories that shaped the course of American history. 

During our trip, I was struck over and over by the importance of material history. It was surreal to see places that I’ve only ever read about or seen dramatized in countless documentaries and movies. It is such a cliché but bears repeating, that history is truly all around us and always beneath our feet. 

The work of museums—preservation, curation, and contextualization of history—is so important! At the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, we heard the stories of the first Black airmen who trained in Tuskegee then became known as the “Red Tails.” Hearing these stories in the company of large scale recreations of their planes was an unforgettable experience.

In Montgomery, we visited the Freedom Rides Museum, located in a former Greyhound bus station, the site where the interracial group of bus riders were assaulted in 1961 for testing the federal laws which prohibited discrimination in interstate travel. A major part of the museum’s exhibition is the mug shots of the bus riders, each one a record of an individual (many of who were just teenagers) who chose to put their bodies on the line. Several of the mug shots are placed alongside photographs of the same people decades later. It is an inspired exhibition because it succeeds in conveying both how normal all these inspiring people were and how recent this history is. The power of photography!

Rosa Parks looms large in Civil Rights history. The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery uses documentary footage, photographs, newspaper clippings, and incredible reenactments to tell the story of this incredible woman and the events pertinent to her story.

 The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is too vast to describe. Suffice it to say that I was struck again by the importance of tangible history, of making the past present in order to appreciate its immediacy and relevancy. 

The 16th Street Baptist Church sits across the street from the Civil Rights museum. The church is home to a vibrant worshiping community which continues to steward its history, particularly the horrific terrorist bombing in 1963 which took the lives of four black girls. Although the church building bears the scars of hatred, it is also a monument to hope and courage.

Our trip culminated in a walk across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, along with hundreds of people who came to mark 59 years since the events of “Bloody Sunday.” It was a moving experience; to be carried along in a crowd of people on a beautiful day, where once blood was shed in the struggle for equality.

I am grateful for the museums, markers and monuments, all of which make the not-so-distant past present. They reminded me again of the importance of documentation, of keeping a material record of our lives. They reminded me of the importance of stories, of telling and retelling the stories of the past. More than anything, the trip has me asking the question: how then shall we live?

Eyes wide open, Chinwe


  1. What a powerful experience! You beautiful photos take us along with you. 💕 thank you!

  2. Oh my goodness. YES! I am such a visual learner THIS is exactly all things I love. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. And that walk at the end. Incredible!

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