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Buffalo leaders visit Montgomery Legacy Museum


Mon, Apr 15th 2024 11:15 am

52 leaders experience equal justice initiative exhibits

Press Release 

Fifty-two Buffalo community advocates spent two days last week at the museums of the Equal Justice Initiative as a way to learn about and bring home strategies for racial healing and equity.

The visit, organized by the ad hoc Buffalo Servant Leadership Coalition, involved leaders from the Buffalo Urban League; the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County; Moog; Buffalo Prep; National Fuel; the Education Collaborative of WNY; the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable; Say Yes Buffalo; BestSelf; the Police Athletic League; the Hispanic Heritage Council of WNY; Crowley Webb; the Western New York Foundation; Jewish Family Services; and the Western New York Women’s Foundation, among others, as well as a number of teachers and administrators from local schools.

Also on the trip was former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, whose mother, Ruth, was murdered with nine others in the racist attack on the Tops Supermarket on Jefferson Avenue May 14, 2022.

The legacy sites include the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration; the National Memorial for Peace and Justice; and Freedom Monument Sculpture Park. They are in Montgomery, a city that, by 1860 was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama and the focal point of the civil rights movements in the 1960s and beyond. Powerful exhibits focus on the devastating impact of enslavement and its evolution into eras of racial terror lynchings, segregation, and mass incarceration.

"The EJI experience gives context and affirms what we as Black people in America already knew and are continually reminded of, but also what those who aren't Black need to (ac)know(ledge),” Whitfield said. “And that is that there is a throughline from slavery to today, and that much of what we are dealing with in the Black community – in terms of poverty, disparate health, educational and financial opportunities, mass incarceration, etc. – is intentional and directly attributable to the maintenance and sustainment of white supremacist policies and practices.”

“By definition and by example, the murder of my mother and nine others on 5/14 was a modern-day lynching,” he added. “I believe their names will one day be added to the thousands ‘hanging’ from the ceilings of the museum, as examples of the true story of American democracy and hypocrisy."

The legacy sites invite visitors to reckon with the history of racial injustice as an urgent and essential journey toward healing and reconciliation. The sites honor the strength, courage, resilience, hope and humanity of the Black community’s belief in freedom and equality. They form “a story of survival, determination, resiliency, and hope that emerge from the difficulty of our past.”

“This was one of the most moving and significant experiences of my life,” said Patti L. Stephen, president of Buffalo Prep. “This is our nation’s history, in all its shattering and painful truth. To move beyond our community’s racial disparities and inequities, we must confront the facts. EJI does that in an atmosphere of peace, solemnity and learning.”

The Buffalo Servant Leadership Coalition formed in October 2021 in the wake of the national and worldwide marches in the summer of 2020 for racial justice and equality in the U.S. A small organizing group of like-motivated individuals felt it was time to help support the many Buffalo organizations working to close Buffalo’s racial divide and take action to change it wherever possible. Its mission is “to activate personal and professional capital that advance equity in Buffalo and support each other in motivating those practices.”

Almost 100 people have attended monthly lunch discussions since September 2022 on topics such as racist policies and practices in Buffalo’s past and present, promoting diverse hiring and an integrated work culture, retaining and promoting people of color in our workplaces, and defining what actions people can take to advance local racial equity. These dynamic discussions led to the trip to Montgomery.

EJI Founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson envisions the legacy sites and EJI conferences and convenings as “a cultural movement that pushes us to remember more.”

“For me, it is about truth telling in a way that is designed to get us to remember – and to not just remember for memory’s sake, but to remember so we can recover – so we can fight for a better future,” Stevenson said.

EJI Engagement and Learning Specialist Tad Roach, who spoke to the coalition in Buffalo last summer, accompanied the group in Montgomery.

“This contingent brought a distinctive and inspiring spirit of engagement, focus, urgency, courage and collaboration to the study of the legacy sites,” said Roach, a Buffalo native. “They understand how an intensive study of the truth of our past can lead to a new movement toward justice, mercy and humanity. They believe in a path forward for Buffalo and our country. I hope to see other cities follow the example Buffalo leaders have envisioned and enacted here.”

The coalition, formed to reinforce, support and supplement the work in these areas that many Buffalo organizations and individuals have been involved in for years, is a grassroots effort designed to listen to diverse ideas and people and assist as needed.

Another trip to EJI is planned for the fall of 2024.

“It was critically important to travel to Montgomery and learn about the evolution of our history,” United Way CEO Trina Burruss said. “If we are to make true systemic change, it is important to know where and how the system started. I am forever changed by the experience.”

The legacy sites invite visitors to reckon with our history of racial injustice in places where that history was lived. Situated on lands occupied by Indigenous people for centuries, in a region that once held the largest population of enslaved Black people and would later become the heart of the civil rights movement, the legacy sites offer visitors a powerful opportunity to engage with history and begin an era of truth telling.

The Buffalo Servant Leadership Coalition

The BSLC formed in October 2021 to, as its mission states, “activate personal and professional capital that advance equity in Buffalo and to support each other in motivating those practices.” The group’s initial discussions led to monthly lunch meetings with diverse guests interested in creating change in Buffalo’s racial equity landscape. What started with an informal eight-person committee morphed into work on diverse hiring practices, creating inclusion in the workplace, retention, culture and others. Nearly 100 people have joined the lunches at least once.

This discussion led to the visit to EJI and the museums. Future lunches and trips to Montgomery are planned. Our heartfelt view is that there is a genuine desire and pent-up demand in our community to not only talk about change but to create and institute change. That is why this group’s mission is one of action. We hope the open conversations and sharing that take place in this group will be a catalyst for the changes we can make personally and within our organizations.

For more on EJI, visit https://eji.org/.

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