The environmental graphic design of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (National Lynching Memorial) in Montgomery, Alabama was a collaboration between the Equal Justice Initiative, MASS Design Group (architects) and Small Stuff with collaborator afreeman (environmental graphic design).
The overall context and purpose of the project is best described by the Equal Justice Initiative:
“The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018, is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.
Work on the memorial began in 2010 when EJI staff began investigating thousands of racial terror lynchings in the American South, many of which had never been documented. EJI was interested not only in lynching incidents, but in understanding the terror and trauma this sanctioned violence against the black community created. Six million black people fled the South as refugees and exiles as a result of these racial terror lynchings.
Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror. The memorial structure on the center of the site is constructed of over 800 Corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are listed on the columns. The memorial is more than a static monument. It is EJI’s hope that the National Memorial inspires communities across the nation to enter an era of truth-telling about racial injustice and their own local histories.
The Memorial for Peace and Justice was conceived with the hope of creating a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality. EJI partnered with artists like Kwame Akoto-Bamfo whose sculpture on slavery confronts visitors when they first enter the memorial. EJI then leads visitors on a journey from slavery, through lynching and racial terror, with text, narrative, and monuments to the lynching victims in America. In the center of the site, visitors encounter a memorial square, built in collaboration with MASS Design Group. The memorial experience continues through the civil rights era made visible with a sculpture by Dana King dedicated to the women who sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Finally, the memorial journey ends with contemporary issues of police violence and racially biased criminal justice expressed in a final work created by Hank Willis Thomas. The memorial displays writing from Toni Morrison and Elizabeth Alexander, words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a reflection space in honor of Ida B. Wells.
EJI will also collaborate to place a monument—identical to the monument found at the National Memorial—in the community. EJI believes that markers and monuments can help transform our national landscape into a more honest reflection of the history of America and reflect a community’s ongoing commitment to truth-telling and racial justice.
When a county’s memorial monument is installed, as a culminating feature of that community work and dialogue, we hope that it can represent the accomplishment of the work done so far, and stand as a symbolic reminder of the community’s continuing efforts to truthfully grapple with painful racial history, challenge injustice where it exists in their own lives, and vow never to repeat the terror and violence of the past. The process of local communities claiming their memorial monuments is thus about much more than transporting and installing the physical monuments themselves. Rather, it first requires an effort to encourage communities across the nation to engage in genuine and sustained work that advances a new era of truth and justice by confronting racial history in a way most communities have never done.
In the report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, EJI documented more than 4400 lynchings of black people in the United States between 1877 and 1950. EJI identified 800 more lynchings than had previously been recognized. Racial terror lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. Lynchings in the American South were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes. Lynching was targeted racial violence at the core of a systematic campaign of terror perpetuated in furtherance of an unjust social order. These lynchings were terrorism.
The lynching era left thousands dead; it significantly marginalized black people in the country's political, economic, and social systems; and it fueled a massive migration of black refugees out of the South. In addition, lynching—and other forms of racial terrorism—inflicted deep traumatic and psychological wounds on survivors, witnesses, family members, and the entire African American community.”
The design project and process as described by Small Stuff:
The overall vision and strategic design for the memorial was conceived and developed by the client and architects. In a close collaboration with these teams, the design team worked to further extend and activate the strategy into a cohesive environmental graphic design program. The scope of this project was to design a visual identity, naming, content strategy, and environmental graphic design program for the memorial, including architectural, interpretive, informational, and wayfinding signs.
The implicit challenge was to use design as a tool to enable the acknowledgement of a brutal chapter of American history, and to recognize victims of lynching for the first time. To do this, a design program was required that could relentlessly memorialize more than 4,400 known and unknown victims of racial terror lynchings, and also call out the many states and counties in the United States where these violent acts took place. This design program also needed to stand up historical narratives, stories, quotes, sculpture, and define space as a means of helping visitors confront and reconcile with this history.
Environmental graphic design needed to be integrated with the architecture in order to guide visitors through a profound and visceral reading experience. On a pragmatic level, the design solution had to align with the dominant abstract classical forms and brutalist materials in the architecture (such as board formed concrete and weathered Corten steel) without distracting from the overall memorial and narrative.
The architects, client, and environmental graphic design team developed a program that would modulate between information, voices, and narratives across the memorial. Over 800 coffin-like Corten Steel monuments, each representing counties and states where racial terror lynchings took place in the United States, are suspended from an outdoor structure at the center of the memorial site. The design team developed a means of laser-cutting the names of over 4,000 victims on these monuments. Duplicates of each suspended monument are located in a field outside the primary structure, encouraging counties and states to engage in a process of acknowledgment and reconciliation by claiming their monument and placing it as a marker in their own community.
Framing the entrance to the memorial is a message from Martin Luther King Jr., “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” Additional spaces across the site are defined by reflective quotes from Toni Morrison and others. Upon entering, a series of five dark grey steel signs with white routed letters are affixed to the wall facing the memorial, establishing the context and forcing a confrontation with history.
Minimal wayfinding plaques serve to guide visitors through the site, highlight artwork, and mark spaces. Approaching the memorial center, directly below the monuments, tall vertical steel strips present over a hundred horrific stories of racial terror and massacres such as “Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama, in 1940 for addressing a white police officer without the title ‘mister.’” Near the center of the memorial, a water-wall with the dimensional letters recognizes the unknown victims of lynching.
The stark materiality contrast between rusted steel monuments with laser-cut letters, painted steel plaques with routed letters, and water-jet cut dimensional aluminum letters are intended to create a somber and accessible reading experience that differentiates voices, narratives and information. Rectangular forms used throughout the program echo the proportions of the monuments, and provide a modular approach for adding future signs.
The primary typeface family used throughout is “Dapifer,” a modern serif typeface family designed by Darden Studio that is itself an abstraction of classical and slab-serif typefaces. A custom stencil version was commissioned to enable consistent and clear presentation of text across multiple scales and to adapt to material production. Wayfinding and informational messages are differentiated by the sans-serif “Halyard,” also by Darden studio, to build a coordinated look and feel.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened to the public in April 2018. There have been a million visitors in just over two years since its opening, and it has received wide recognition in The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere. The Dallas Morning News’ architecture critic Mark Lamster referred to the memorial as “The single greatest work of American architecture of the 21st century.”
The success of this project might not simply be quantified or measured in traditional ways. Visiting the memorial is a deeply personal experience. It provides a space and means for truth-telling, hope, healing, and reconciliation. As EJI stated in a press release, “the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”
Please visit the Equal Justice Initiativeto learn more about the memorial and support EJI's efforts.
“Overwhelming emotions—and that’s just from the photos. I can only imagine what the experience must feel like in person. Such a powerful yet simple use of form, material, and type to communicate a strong message.”
“The care, intention, material, typography, and form of each aspect of the experience deliver a powerful and necessary focus and allow us to see and understand the contemporary impacts that continue to surround us.”
“A powerful statement that resonates not only in Montgomery, Alabama but on a national scale. It conveys so much meaning with the use of very simple materials and text. The pacing and execution is outstanding.”
“This project captures all of our emotions. We were moved not only by the impactful content, but also by the refined execution of material and well-integrated typography.”
Small Stuff: Dinah Fried, Joe Marianek (principals and lead designers); Sophie Sagar (strategy and project manager); Owen Maher (architectural designer); Bex Zank (junior designer)
afreeman: Andrew Freeman (principal, lead designer)
Darden Studio (type design): Joshua Darden (type designer), Joyce Ketterer (project manager)
MASS Design Group (architecture): Alicia Ajayi, Justin Brown, Michael Murphy (architects); Sierra Bainbridge (landscape architect); Adam Saltzman (architect, project manager)
Equal Justice Initiative (client): Josh Cannon , Sonia Kapadia , Sia Sanneh, Bryan Stevenson