Montgomery artist and business owner Michelle Browder did not want Juneteenth to pass without celebration in her hometown, steeped in both tragic history and heroic advances for civil rights.
About a week ago, Browder made some calls and found no Juneteenth events in the works, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So she bounced an idea off a friend, Montgomery County District Judge Tiffany McCord, who liked it and said she would talk to Mayor Steven Reed.
Today, Browder’s vision was on display at Montgomery’s Court Square. It’s a temporary “Black Lives Matter” mural painted on the walkway that encircles the fountain. The square was once the site of Montgomery’s slave market.
Browder said there’s not a more fitting place to commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States in 1865, or to keep up the calls for police reform and racial justice in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
A statue on the square marks where Rosa Parks got on the bus in December 1955 for the ride that would launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The square is at the foot of Dexter Avenue, where the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march ended a decade later.
“You can’t find that type of history anywhere in the world,” Browder said. “So, we have it. I just thought it was important because enslaved black lives mattered. Because black lives built Montgomery, Alabama and its commerce.
“It mattered to them because they were the source of commerce in the antebellum South. So, where better to do this than right here where they were bought, sold and traded?”
Jamie Gonzalez of the events team with the city of Montgomery said the artists used a temporary paint that will wash away with water. Gonzalez said the city will pressure clean the walkway once the mural begins to fade or chip.
Browder, who owns a trolley tour business, called on friends from King’s Canvas, a nonprofit studio gallery, and 21 Dreams Arts & Culture, also a nonprofit, to help with the painting. They started Thursday afternoon after getting clearance from the mayor on Wednesday, she said.
“The mayor came out last night and gave us all a bit of a pep talk,” Browder said. “And it’s just important for Montgomery since the world changed because of what happened here in the 50s and 60s.”
One of the artists, Milton Madison of Deatsville, said he met people today who didn’t realize that the square was once a slave market. There’s a historical marker, but it’s on a nearby corner, not on the circle with the fountain. He said he hopes young people are inspired by the display.
“Putting a positive message at a place that a lot of negative things happened, I think that’s important, too,” Madison said.
A disc jockey played upbeat music this afternoon as people walked through the the square, posed for pictures, and found shady spots to enjoy the sights, sounds, and summer weather.
Along with the bright lettering and design, the mural includes dark images of human figures that represent how people were stacked into slave ships, Browder said.
“Everybody wants to take a photo,” Browder said. “People are deeply touched. They’re laying down and they’re taking photos of themselves.”