From the Executive Director

From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

Places can change you.

Ordinarily, I write about Pennsylvania history here. But I recently returned from a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, and I came home a different person. Montgomery was not on my radar as a destination. Having little time to prepare for my trip (and consequently few expectations) left me wide open to surprise and to change.

The city is home to two of our nation’s most significant narratives — slavery and civil rights. My understanding of this complicated history was expanded greatly by the impact and emotion of being in the very spot where this history happened.

In every state capital I visit, I carve out time to see the state house, but this is a capitol building that I will not
forget. Standing at the top of the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, I looked down to see a bronze star marking the
spot where, in 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederate States of America. Throughout the capitol, the traditional Jim Crow–era narrative remains strongly evident, expressed by the towering Confederate Monument on the grounds and the interior murals depicting the 1920s version of Alabama history.

But when I left the capitol building and stepped outside, another narrative came into view. Looking down Dexter Avenue, the street where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches ended, landmarks of the civil rights movement extended before me. At the top of the street is the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King organized the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott. Further down is the city’s new Rosa Parks statue, which stands at the corner where the city’s 19th-century slave auctions were held.

The most prominent new additions to Montgomery’s cultural institutions include the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, which explores the links between enslavement and mass incarceration, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The latter commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were executed through racial terror lynchings, not just in the South but across the nation.

It is impossible to visit Montgomery without encountering both of these accounts of our past. The city is a physical expression of the complicated fabric of American history. Experiencing these two narratives, separate but inextricably intertwined, in the place where they happened, did not just educate me but moved me.

The past is complex, made up of the stories of countless individuals and woven together as whole cloth. Each experience is unique, and appreciating each other’s narratives gives us a better understanding of not just the past but also the present.

At the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, we have several ongoing initiatives to ensure that the stories
we preserve and tell reflect a history that belongs to all Pennsylvanians. For example, we are identifying underrepresented voices, broadening our programs and collections, and working to create an environment where inclusivity is embedded in all we do. As the state’s history agency, we welcome the complexity of history and embrace our mission to capture the experiences of a diversity of Pennsylvanians, allowing us to share them today with our fellow residents — and our visitors — and to preserve them for those to come.

Andrea Lowery
Executive Director, PHMC