Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace paced through the 800 steel columns suspended in midair at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. With each column passed, Wallace looked for what connected him to this museum.
Each column represents a different county in the United States where a documented lynching of a Black person took place between 1877 and 1950; engraved into those columns are more than 4,400 names.
Wallace, who is Black, had left the University of Alabama by the time the memorial opened in 2018 and wasn’t aware of its existence until Bills team chaplain Len Vanden Bos, who is white, invited him to visit it with him this offseason. So as they toured the grounds in June with a small group of friends and family, Wallace searched through that sea of coffin-shaped columns for something he didn’t want to find.
His family members.
“I have family in Alabama, so I was looking at the counties to see if I see any Wallaces, praying that I didn’t,” he said. “But to be honest, a lot of people didn’t have registered last names, so you don’t really know if someone was connected to me.”
The visit took place in the wake of widespread protests after the killings by police officers of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. The museum trip came together because a wedding Vanden Bos was to officiate this offseason was relocated from Houston to Gulf Shores, Alabama.
He and his wife, Char, decided to make the drive from western New York, and their route would take them directly through Montgomery. Wallace happened to be visiting Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at the same time Vanden Bos would be in the state.
Vanden Bos said he believed it was divine intervention.
“Especially with all that we’re going through in our country,” Vanden Bos said. “With the death of George Floyd and all that’s happened, these things came together and we said, ‘We’ve got to go.'”
Vanden Bos invited Wallace — who in turn reached out to his brother, Lawrence, and former Alabama teammates, Jamey Mosley and Josh Casher — and emailed the director requesting a visit. The museum and memorial have been closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but name-dropping Wallace, who won a national championship as a starting cornerback for Alabama, helped get their group of six a private tour.
The group was also led through the exhibits of the nearby Legacy Museum. It offered vivid depictions of the history of slavery in the United States, as well as the transition of racial oppression from slavery to segregation and mass incarceration.
The tour had a profound impact on Wallace, who did not know the darker history of the city 100 miles from where he once starred on the football field.
“The museum was powerful,” Wallace said. “The warehouse that they used was a warehouse they kept slaves in. … I went to Alabama for four years and I didn’t know Montgomery was one of the biggest hubs [for slave trading]. Just to hear the cries and the stories and the situations they were put in. … We were in the museum maybe three hours and I still didn’t get through the whole thing.”
‘A lot of emotions’
Wallace said he learned more during those three hours than he did in any course he took at Alabama, although it only took one encounter during his freshman year to realize how rampant racism could be.
While walking down the street in Tuscaloosa before he had joined the football team as a walk-on, he remembers hearing a self-appointed bouncer loudly announcing the prerequisites for anyone hoping to attend the party he was gatekeeping. It wasn’t directed at Wallace, but he hasn’t forgotten what the man said while holding up a brown paper bag.
“I remember somebody yelled out, ‘If you’re darker than this bag, you can’t come in here unless you play football,'” said Wallace, who did not attend the party. “That threw me for a loop. That’ll stick with me for the rest of my life — to put up a brown paper bag and say if you’re darker than this, you can’t come in here? And then go cheer for the same football team that’s made of 95% African Americans? Something’s not adding up.”
Learning about experiences and perspectives such as Wallace’s is important for Vanden Bos, as was confronting the country’s inhumane history together. Vanden Bos called the experience as “heartbreaking” as it was eye-opening, but sharing it with four Black men — one of whom searched for possible family members at the memorial — was surreal.
“We all had a lot of emotions,” said Vanden Bos, whose met Wallace in 2018. “We went to dinner afterward and could begin to process that. My wife and I are a mid-50s white couple with these four, 22-to-25-year-old African American young men — to be able to experience that with them, it had more depth.”
Vanden Bos is from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and graduated from Western Michigan before spending 25 years with Char in the suburbs of Chicago, working in a church and coaching at five different colleges from 1988-2013. Eventually, with their kids out of the house, the Vanden Boses did ministry and chaplain work with the Bears before continuing that work with the Bills in 2017.
Vanden Bos and Wallace met through Bible study and built a relationship based around faith and football.
“Len is my mentor — I have a problem with anything, I call him up,” Wallace said. “Girls, family, football, whatever. Len loves me like he’s known me his whole life and vice versa. Just to walk with someone who I can tell everything and he’ll never judge me, a lot of people don’t have those ties.”
“It just shows the resilience of African American people.” Buffalo’s Levi Wallace on his takeaway from the trip to Montgomery.
Wallace isn’t the only Bills player who has that kind of connection with Vanden Bos. “There’s been times during my tenure in Buffalo — everybody goes through ups and downs, but when the down side of life was really getting to me, he was someone I was able to talk to and [he would] lift me up, in an emotional and spiritual way,” Buffalo safety Jordan Poyer said.
However, Wallace’s friendship with Vanden Bos almost didn’t happen. After going undrafted in 2018, Wallace said he was going to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers before making a last-minute decision to sign with the Bills.
He had seen Buffalo’s infamous snow game on Dec. 10, 2017, against the Colts (there was roughly 6 inches of snow on the field) and had no desire to play football in western New York. Wallace still doesn’t know what made him change his mind, but he knows who was responsible and why it happened.
“That was nothing but the Lord and me getting an opportunity to meet Len,” he said.
In the time since, Wallace has started 23 games for Buffalo. The team brought in former All-Pro Josh Norman, who is dealing with a hamstring injury, to compete for the Bills’ second starting cornerback job this offseason, but the addition hasn’t altered Wallace’s approach, according to his coaches.
“We always talk to Levi, that people are going to look at him as the undrafted free agent,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said.
“That really emboldens Levi to work hard and have a desire to show everybody, ‘Maybe I wasn’t drafted, but I’m as good as anyone you’re going to bring in, or better.’ He practices that way, he plays that way and he understands he can never relax.”
Those are among the traits that endeared him to Vanden Bos and made the offseason visit to Montgomery so special.
Sharing the experience
Vanden Bos first heard of the museum and memorial on a TV news program around the time it opened in 2018. A line from Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, caught his attention.
“To overcome racial inequality, we must confront our history,” he recalled. “When my wife and I saw that on ’60 Minutes’ a couple years ago, I made a mental note that that’s someplace I want to go and visit.”
The Legacy Museum immerses its visitors in “the enslavement of African Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy,” using vibrant images and audio, as well as narrated first-person accounts from enslaved people.
The visuals made the experience more impactful for Wallace, who said what he saw and read in the Legacy Museum inspired him to ask his grandfather about his personal experiences growing up in Alabama during segregation — something he’d never thought to do before.
He felt an immense amount of respect for his grandfather, and his people, following that conversation.
“It opened my mind to a whole new way of thinking,” Wallace said. “It just shows the resilience of African American people. And now today, we’re still dealing with the same thing. It’s gotten a little bit better — we’re just taping it now.”
Wallace wants to help educate others on what he learned in Montgomery but first wants to continue to educate himself — those three hours weren’t nearly enough, he said.
He also isn’t sold on his words carrying any additional weight simply because he’s a professional athlete, or what type of impact he can have on others. One day football will be gone, he said, and to the world, he’ll be another Black man.
Vanden Bos disagrees.
“He may say right now, ‘I don’t know what that impact might be,'” Vanden Bos said. “But I’d say he’s already had that, in some way, because he brought others into the experience that would never have had it if he hadn’t had said, ‘Let’s go.’
“It wasn’t an accident … there’s going to be an impact because of this trip.”
Both men want to make that impact happen. Once travel and gatherings are deemed safe following the pandemic, Vanden Bos hopes to organize a team trip back to Montgomery so more Bills players and staff members can take in the experience. Wallace hopes the coaching staff at Alabama organizes something similar.
The goal is to continue to listen and learn — from one another and from the country’s past mistakes.
“It would be a tremendous experience to do that together,” Wallace said, “because the conversation that would come out of that is what we need to heal. We have to embrace this, educate ourselves and experience it together if we’re ever going to heal.”