With the help of a few visionaries, Alabama’s capital city confronts its past and lays claim to a promising future

The National Memorial for peace and Justice shines the light of remembrance on more than 4,400 documented victims of lynching.
Hector Manuel Sanchez

Search every city in the South, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sliver of pavement more enriched by history—or laden with it—than Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. There’s the Winter Building, once home to the Southern Telegraph Company, which tapped out the orders for Confederate troops to fire on Fort Sumter; Court Square, part of Jefferson Davis’ inaugural procession route; the bus stop where Rosa Parks waited for a ride that sparked the Civil Rights Movement; the church Martin Luther King Jr. pastored—they’re all here. You can stand on the steps of The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and clearly see the state capitol steps that Dr. King was not allowed to ascend when he addressed the thousands of Selma-to-Montgomery marchers. 

When the Winter Building was completed in the 1840s, Dexter was known as Market Street because it was a center for trade in the city—and that included human trade.

“We had more enslaved people in Montgomery in 1860 than in New Orleans,” says Bryan Stevenson, whose Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is responsible for the groundbreaking new Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which remembers more than 4,400 documented victims of lynching.

Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative
Lynsey Weatherspoon

Both sites, which opened in 2018, are as inspiring as they are harrowing. Built on the location of a former warehouse where enslaved men, women, and children were forcibly held, the 11,000-square-foot Legacy Museum uses technology to bring visitors face-to-face with the injustice of slavery and lynching—and the legacy of that injustice, which has repercussions in our society even today.

The EJI worked with the nonprofit MASS Design Group and such artists as Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, Dana King, and Hank Willis Thomas to complete the national memorial, which attracted 100,000 visitors in its first 10 weeks. Resting on a peaceful 6-acre hilltop, the memorial includes 800 tablet-like monuments, one for each county in the U.S. with a documented lynching. The names of all the victims from each county are etched into a 6-foot-tall monument. Some hold only a few names. Others are completely full. Either way, it’s chilling to stand below and look at them suspended above. 

The EJI has begun a necessary, albeit difficult, conversation, but Stevenson has built his life’s work around the belief that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” As he explains, “I just think there’s something redemptive and reparatory and restorative waiting for us if we commit ourselves to truth
and reconciliation.” 

A few years before the EJI opened these two civil rights experiences, it planted three unassuming historical markers—initially deemed too controversial for this community—at slave-trading sites. “We worked with the mayor and the city, and after a lot of back and forth, we put up three markers in downtown Montgomery: one outside the EJI building, one down by the river, and one where the slave depots would have been,” Stevenson says. “It was surprising to me how meaningful that was to many people in this community. A lot of African-Americans were energized—but it wasn’t just black people. There were others saying, ‘Thank God we’re finally starting to tell the truth.’ ”

Since the early 2000s, Montgomery has been getting progressively bolder about truth telling. Before the EJI turned a national spotlight on slavery and its aftermath, the city had already confronted another harsh reality: Nobody wanted to live there. New families weren’t moving in, and the young locals who left for college weren’t coming back. Mayor Todd Strange doesn’t mince words: “We were a mulligrubby capital city. You could go out at five o’clock in the evening, and everybody was on their way home. Nothing was happening.”

Golson Foshee leads the development-and-property management arm of a family enterprise called Foshee Residential, with his architect brother, John. The Foshees are longtime Montgomerians.

Golson and John Foshee, Foshee Residential
Robbie Caponetto

“Out of the 70 people in my high school class, only 6 or 7 are still in Montgomery,” Foshee says. Parents work hard to educate their kids, he explains, but Montgomery hasn’t reaped the benefits because students who leave for college don’t return. “What a lot of us are trying to do is create a magnet to attract back our kids,” he says.

Most agree that what sparked Montgomery’s downtown renaissance was the Minor League Baseball team, the Biscuits, and its new stadium on the Alabama River. The ballpark opened in 2004, giving locals a family-friendly reason to go downtown. And then the opening of a Hyundai manufacturing plant provided a big economic boost. 

About the same time that the Biscuits were stepping up to bat on the riverfront, the Foshees got involved with historic properties downtown, first managing them and then buying and renovating. “There is a lot of intrinsic value and beauty in these old buildings that we tried really hard to preserve,” Foshee says. 

When Mayor Strange took office in 2009, he and the city government also focused on downtown—Montgomery’s core—and worked to engage the private sector and encourage investment.

Among those who responded were entrepreneurs Sarah Beatty Buller and her husband, Mark, of New York. While scouting Montgomery locations, Mark discovered Dexter Avenue and was impressed by its historical significance. The first major project he and Sarah took on was the old Kress department store, which bridges Dexter Avenue (predominately white in the 1960s) and Monroe Street (once home to many thriving black businesses). The Bullers have bought a number of other buildings downtown, working to preserve and renovate them to meet the needs of the community.

“I’m from Boston, so I grew up on history,” Sarah says. “And that is what attracted me to Montgomery. It happened here, and the stories don’t get more dramatic or more thought-provoking. In leaning into those stories, I think that we as a country and as a people, regardless of party or religious affiliation, can find a human connection in one another and a way forward. I feel it strongly.”

WATCH: Iconic Civil Rights Landmarks, Then & Now

A leap in tourism has both accompanied and fueled the growth downtown. The streetscape along Dexter Avenue got a $6.8 million face-lift. Renovated sports facilities are attracting championships and bowl games. The Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center opened in 2008; two new properties are under construction, with two more being planned, Mayor Strange says.

Downtown Montgomery also has good food, from the farm-to-table fare served at Central restaurant to Latin and Carib-
bean flavors at D’Road Cafe´and Island Delight to classic Southern cooking at Cahawba House. Locals will tell you not to bypass landmarks like Chris’ Hotdogs (it’s over 100 years old) or Capitol Oyster Bar on the river. 

Determined to help Montgomery become “the food mecca of the South,” San Francisco transplant Ashley Jernigan founded JDB Hospitality, a marketing, brand-management, and public relations firm. She works with the city’s tourism and food-and-beverage communities. 

Ashley Jernigan, JDB Hospitality
Robbie Caponetto

Jernigan moved south to attend Alabama State University and decided to stay. “Everything I do on behalf of JDB Hospitality is wrapped around advocating for the entire area,” she says. “It allows me to build relationships and get more people to come here. I could buy a house here at 23 years old. My mortgage was the same as what it would have cost me to rent a parking space in San Francisco.”

Mayor Strange sees the city’s future in technology. It is home not only to Maxwell Air Force Base but also to the Air Force Cyber College and to Air University. Montgomery has one of only a few 100-gig Internet exchanges in the Southeast, the mayor explains. You can hear the wry humor as he talks about it: “When tech magazines mention us in the same breath with Silicon Valley, Huntsville, and Austin, we get very prideful—and we have to ask for forgiveness.”

As forward-thinking as Montgomery has become, it’s the rich history of this place that has attracted attention. Even the older civil rights sites that don’t employ the EJI’s sophisticated technology still inspire with their authenticity and passionate staffs.

The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church has its original pews and stained glass windows, Dr. King’s office downstairs, and the pulpit from which he preached. Go there to meet tour ministry director Wanda Battle, if for no other reason. “When you talk about human rights and social justice, you’re talking about how we treat each other, and you’re talking about love and faith and compassion,” she says. “That’s what Dr. King shared, because in his work, he was always fascinated with how the mind of man—meaning philosophy—melded with theology—meaning the mind of God.” 

Wanda Battle, Tour Ministry Director at The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church
Robbie Caponetto

Battle believes current events have spurred a renewed interest in civil and human rights, which is why many are now drawn to Montgomery. “People are fascinated by this history of overcoming and standing for what is right,” she says. “Mahatma Gandhi’s quote was, ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world.’ I make that personal, and I share it with people on my tours.”

Few figures in the Civil Rights Movement represent “it begins with me” more than Rosa Parks. Dr. Felicia Bell is director of Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum, which is located on the campus downtown. This modern facility and its Children’s Annex tell the story of Mrs. Parks’ life and her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. It draws international crowds. “Sometimes, the young children who come here love to tell us what they already know about Mrs. Parks,” Bell explains. “So we always take the time to listen to them. And then we try to impart some things that they possibly don’t know: that she was an activist all of her life, that she was more than just the woman who was arrested on the bus that day.”

Dr. Felicia Bell, Director of the Rosa Parks Museum
Robbie Caponetto

Bell believes children are key to the tourism boom in Montgomery because they take field trips to the sites and then go home and tell their parents. And when kids can interact with history, as they do aboard a time-traveling bus in the Children’s Annex, they learn about it at a whole new level. 

No doubt Stevenson would agree. An attorney and law professor by trade, he has dedicated his life to advocating for the poor and the disenfranchised. “I think it’s important for children to know the history of this country, because in some ways, they’re going to encounter the legacy of that history,” Stevenson explains. “And if they don’t have a context, then it will be easy for them to get confused. So I believe that giving children a sense of what has happened and where we are in this struggle to get to a better place is so important.”

In the end, Stevenson is as optimistic as he is realistic: “I am persuaded that justice will come when the ideas in our minds are fueled by the convictions in our hearts. It’s not just minds that we have to change. We have to change people’s hearts.”