National Memorial for Peace and Justice

1_Empathy / 6D – Spaces, Systems, Objects, Products, Graphics, and Experiences

MASS architects design for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a place to remember, reflect, and reengage with the untold history of racial terror in the United States. The memorial focuses on twelve southern states that had over 4000 lynchings during the period of Reconstruction. By suspending 800 weathered steel monuments to the ceiling, each representing a county where racial terror occurred, the audience encounters hanging objects -much like the victims of lynching- which documents the lives lost to the unpunished crimes of white supremacy. When the viewer enters the space, they face the monuments at eye level, like tombstones for victims. The viewer then descends beneath the monuments, seeing hundreds of markers suspended from the ceiling, feeling the weight of the heavy history, and creates an emotional space of reflection. This interior space forces the audience to grapple with the untold histories of racial terror, meditating on the magnitude of these atrocities. As the viewer moves to the outside “memory bank,” they see that the monuments have been duplicated so you can read the inscriptions. These monuments than become products for the communities included to claim and place in their community to engage with their history and continue the conversation of racial injustices which many of these communities still face today. To add to the experience, MASS and EJI designed the Legacy Museum. This museum is organized like an argument, presenting documents, images, and first-had accounts of racial terror from through history from the slave trade to the period of lynching and racial terror in Reconstruction to the segregation of Jim Crow, and finally to the mass incarceration of today. The museum contextualizes the racial struggle of today. Furthermore, the museum ends with voter registration information, volunteering information, and other resources to create a call to action for the viewers. The whole experience of the memorial isn’t to shame and belittle Americans today, it’s to urge them to reflect, empathize, meditate, but more importantly, make change!


One of the strongest elements of the museum is the thorough research into the untold stories of US racial terror. Researchers collected soil samples of the sites where the victims were lynched. By collecting the sample, the memorial highlights that the racial terror was strongly rooted in place. After staring at the hundreds of hanging steel monuments from below, the impact of seeing the soil where these lynchings occurred is a really strong emotional experience for the viewer. Reading the inscriptions of the stone creates another layer of emotion with examples like “Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.” These stories and artifacts provoke the audience into reflecting and empathizing on the atrocities of racial terror. The historical trauma bleeds through the memorial. The design of the museum, which first presents the steel monuments like tombstones, only to change their perspective and force the audience to see the monuments from below reminds viewers that these victims never got a proper burial, and were often left in trees for full days to further fuel the racial terror in these communities. This memorial and accompanying museum full of traumas truly pushes the viewer to reconsider history, empathizing with the victims of racial terror, urging them to change.


This memorial is visually striking. Just seeing pictures of the monuments suspended from the ceiling, one can imagine the heaviness and weight of the trauma that the victims of racial terror have experienced throughout the history of the US. Furthermore, one can imagine the cultural trauma past from one generation to the next after hundreds of years of racial injustices. The emotional power of the museum to provoke empathy is only strengthened by the Legacy Museum, which presents a succinct history of racial terror from the beginning of slavery to the contemporary era of today. By the end of the museum tour, MASS and EJI doesn’t want viewers feeling deep shame or punishment, but wants to empower individuals to create change in their own communities, and the nation as a whole. MASS and EJI utilize empathetic design with education to create a space that emboldens individuals to empathize and care, great primers for cultural change.

4_Why are monuments valuable?

Monuments can be valuable to society because they reflect the values, ideas, and moments of our past. Monuments can preserve moments in time so that future generations can understand the mindsets, climates, and ideologies of that time. Monuments can also shift the perspective of history, almost rewriting history to glorify “heroes” for political reasons. For example, while many people today argue for the preservation of Confederate statues, those same individuals forget that the majority of these statues were erected during Reconstruction to install racial terror in the lives of black Americans. These monuments honoring the fallen “heroes” of the Confederate South were political objects to suppress a people. Here at UVA, we honor monuments of Jefferson and Washington, slave-owning founders of America with a slew of their own issues. These are political objects reflecting the values, ideas, and moments of our past, yet distorted to fit our modern-day national narrative. This distortion can be dangerous, leaving out whole perspectives throughout history. The Memorial by MASS and EJI attempts to create monuments that fills in more of the truth of history so that we can have a fuller picture of our past, contextualizing modern issues. Monuments can be more valuable if they actually educated. Can a monument of Thomas Jefferson explain why the KKK marched on the Academical Village in 2017? No. But the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (with the Legacy Museum) starts to contextualize that question in a more accurate history. Monuments can be valuable to society, but only if the audience understands their intent and can contextualize their history.