MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In the 1850s, the capital of Alabama was the 75th largest city in the country, but it had the second largest slave population.
Every month, thousands of slaves were imported to the city of 8,700 residents from other parts of the country by way of railroad and the Alabama River. Every day, hundreds of slaves were taken off boats, chained together and paraded up Commerce Street.
By the start of the Civil War in 1861, Montgomery had more slave depots than churches or schools.
"Montgomery was a very prominent and critical part of the slave trade in America," said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Montgomery-based nonprofit legal firm Equal Justice Initiative. "The forced migration of thousands of enslaved people from the upper South to the Deep South in the 19th century is a phenomenon most people don't understand."
On Tuesday, the Equal Justice Initiative and the Black Heritage Council, which is part of the Alabama Historical Commission, dedicated three new historical markers documenting the history of the slave trade here.
The Black Heritage Council is a statewide organization that advocates for the preservation of African-American historic places, artifacts and culture, said Frazine Taylor, chairwoman of the council.
The dedication and markers are part of a bigger project, the race and poverty project, which Stevenson says will educate people about the legacy of slavery and the lasting effects that still exist in society today. The Equal Justice Initiative has released a 58-page book called Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade.
He said the myths and attitudes that resulted from slavery are directly responsible for the decades of terror and lynching that followed its abolition as well as more modern problems such as racial profiling, guilt and discomfort in conversations about race.
"You can't understand civil rights or the Civil War without an appreciation of slavery and what the slave trade did to places like Montgomery," he said.
See the signs
• Outside Union Station at 300 Water St., one sign describes both the slave trade by ship and by train.
• Outside the Equal Justice Initiative building at 122 Commerce St., which was once a slave warehouse.
• At the corner of Monroe and Lawrence streets, a sign to be erected in about a week will note the slave depots that existed on Dexter Avenue.
"These buildings and spaces were places of tremendous agony," Stevenson said.
Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said he was hesitant to allow the organization to put up the markers about slavery.
"It's history," Strange said, adding that the city already has a marker that memorializes events of Montgomery's slave trade at the Court Square Fountain on Dexter Avenue, where slaves were once traded.
Part of the reason he said he agreed to allow the initiative to place the markers on public rights-of-way is because it will promote tourism.
"I would have preferred not to have the additional markers, but I believe they are part of history," he said.
The group's goal with both the markers and the report is to educate and to encourage an elevated consciousness about this part of the city's history, Stevenson said. The markers are the beginning of an important conversation "we all need to have."
"I definitely think that we could and should do a lot better at educating people about the legacy of slavery," he said. "Part of the reason we were interested in these markers is because we have dozens on the Civil War experience and many about the civil rights movement. But we don't have many about slavery."
Taylor said the her organization has been working with the initiative for months on the project.
"Too often history is lost because no one tells the story associated with a structure, a place or an event," she said. "Let us move on to tell more stories in the city and in other cities across the state, one marker at a time."
All people — black and white — are shaped by the legacy of slavery, Stevenson said.
"Talking about this is a challenge, but it's a necessity," he said.
At the dedication ceremony, Chris Chalk, an actor who played a slave in the recent movie 12 Years a Slave talked about the importance of the project and of understanding the history of slavery. He also talked about the difficulties associated with playing a part in such an emotional and controversial movie.
"It's new. We don't talk about this. We don't talk about this in any honorable way," he said. "And this is my first experience seeing slavery as a human experience and not an institution — as, you know, individual stories of people surviving, as opposed to, 'this bad thing happened, let's push it to the side.' "
By being in the movie, Chalk said he and the other actors took a responsibility they didn't even realize they took.
"These white Academy members who aren't wanting to see the film need to know that it's their shame and guilt, too," he said.