Pozen Center travel seminar unites students and community members to study slavery memorials

February 18, 2020

  • Exploring how memory can foster justice

    Photo by Daris Jasper 

    Understanding the struggle to preserve and memorialize Black history is critical to understanding Black America. In September 2019, the University of Chicago’s Pozen Family Center for Human Rights offered members of the UChicago community an immersive travel seminar to Alabama to explore the role memorials play in the process of reckoning with state violence. 

    The experience was part of the Pozen Human Rights Lab’s inaugural Institute on Memory and Human Rights, which examines how individual and collective memory shapes public narratives of past and present injustices. The work of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), an organization co-founded by Pozen's Director of Human Rights Practice, Alice Kim, served as a local case study for the Institute. CTJM initiated a successful campaign which moved the Chicago City Council to pass reparations legislation, providing concrete redress to survivors of Jon Burge police torture. The creation of a public memorial commemorating Burge torture survivors and the struggle for justice was part of the reparations package. 

    The travel seminar began on September 7 with a two-day on-campus workshop where participants engaged in sessions exploring various forms of memory work, art, and storytelling. Workshop speakers included Adam Green, Associate Professor of American History and the College; Mario Venegas, a Chilean torture survivor; Patricia Nguyen, a Chicago artist and co-creator of the memorial design selected by CTJM; and Joey Mogul, a human rights attorney and author of the reparations ordinance. Institute participants also toured the Stony Island Arts Bank where the Tamir Rice Memorial was erected last summer.

    In partnership with Freedom Lifted, the group then traveled to Alabama and spent four days visiting a number of locations, including the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, which is the country’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people and people terrorized by lynching. Additional site visits included stops at the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which is situated on a site in where enslaved people were once warehoused, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where armed police attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators on what is known as “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. 

    "A critical aspect of struggles for justice is asserting truths about society, especially those truths that have gone unacknowledged or have been dismissed and denied," said Kim, who spearheaded the Institute as a Pozen initiative. "Community leaders and artists who lost loved ones to police violence or who had been tortured and wrongfully incarcerated themselves were part of our cohort. It was impactful and meaningful for all of us to be able to see and experience these places together. And the Institute became its own vehicle for truth-telling as we learned from and with each other."

    A total of 23 people participated in the travel seminar, including 10 UChicago students, 10 community leaders involved in CTJM work, and three UChicago faculty and staff. Following the Alabama trip, several students wrote reflections about their experiences.

    "Being in a group full of changemakers, survivors, and down-to-earth individuals truly changed my life," said Mylon Patton, a second-year student, in a reflection he wrote about the Institute. "As a younger member of the cohort, I had much to learn. I have grown to realize this cohort is a family. We laughed together. We cried together. And we were inspired together."

    Participants also took part in a roundtable hosted by the Chicago Torture Justice Center. Excerpts from the roundtable will be published in a forthcoming issue of In These Times. Kim is also working with a group of UChicago graduate students to develop a series of follow-up discussions on campus, the first of which will take place on Saturday, May 16, at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.