The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Winner of the 2020 SEGD Best in Show
The design project and process as described by designer, Small Stuff:
The overall vision and strategic design for the memorial was conceived and developed by the client and architects. In a close collaboration with these teams, the design team worked to further extend and activate the strategy into a cohesive environmental graphic design program. The scope of this project was to design a visual identity, naming, content strategy, and environmental graphic design program for the memorial, including architectural, interpretive, informational, and wayfinding signs.
The implicit challenge was to use design as a tool to enable the acknowledgement of a brutal chapter of American history, and to recognize victims of lynching for the first time. To do this, a design program was required that could relentlessly memorialize more than 4,400 known and unknown victims of racial terror lynchings, and also call out the many states and counties in the United States where these violent acts took place. This design program also needed to stand up historical narratives, stories, quotes, sculpture, and define space as a means of helping visitors confront and reconcile with this history.
Environmental graphic design needed to be integrated with the architecture in order to guide visitors through a profound and visceral reading experience. On a pragmatic level, the design solution had to align with the dominant abstract classical forms and brutalist materials in the architecture (such as board formed concrete and weathered Corten steel) without distracting from the overall memorial and narrative.
The architects, client, and environmental graphic design team developed a program that would modulate between information, voices, and narratives across the memorial. Over 800 coffin-like Corten Steel monuments, each representing counties and states where racial terror lynchings took place in the United States, are suspended from an outdoor structure at the center of the memorial site. The design team developed a means of laser-cutting the names of over 4,000 victims on these monuments. Duplicates of each suspended monument are located in a field outside the primary structure, encouraging counties and states to engage in a process of acknowledgment and reconciliation by claiming their monument and placing it as a marker in their own community.
Framing the entrance to the memorial is a message from Martin Luther King Jr., “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” Additional spaces across the site are defined by reflective quotes from Toni Morrison and others. Upon entering, a series of five dark grey steel signs with white routed letters are affixed to the wall facing the memorial, establishing the context and forcing a confrontation with history.
Minimal wayfinding plaques serve to guide visitors through the site, highlight artwork, and mark spaces. Approaching the memorial center, directly below the monuments, tall vertical steel strips present over a hundred horrific stories of racial terror and massacres such as “Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama, in 1940 for addressing a white police officer without the title ‘mister.’” Near the center of the memorial, a water-wall with the dimensional letters recognizes the unknown victims of lynching.
The stark materiality contrast between rusted steel monuments with laser-cut letters, painted steel plaques with routed letters, and water-jet cut dimensional aluminum letters are intended to create a somber and accessible reading experience that differentiates voices, narratives and information. Rectangular forms used throughout the program echo the proportions of the monuments, and provide a modular approach for adding future signs.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened to the public in April 2018. There have been a million visitors in just over two years since its opening, and it has received wide recognition in The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere. The Dallas Morning News’ architecture critic Mark Lamster referred to the memorial as “The single greatest work of American architecture of the 21st century.”
The success of this project might not simply be quantified or measured in traditional ways. Visiting the memorial is a deeply personal experience. It provides a space and means for truth-telling, hope, healing, and reconciliation. As EJI stated in a press release, “the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”
Small Stuff (design)
Equal Justice Initiative (client)
MASS Design Group (photos)
Spirit of Space (videography)
What We Provided
- Project Management
- Material Specification
- Custom Fabrication
- Field Services
What We Did
- Architectural Elements
- Informational Signage