Connected \\ June 12, 2020

Seeking justice in Salem

Organizations like the Massachusetts Bail Fund (MBF) are working tirelessly toward freedom and equality and their work speaks to this moment as many in our country strive to right historical wrongs in education, cultural institutions and the justice system.


People walking along the street in front of East India Marine Hall

Photo by Paige Besse/PEM


The MBF was chosen by Voices Against Injustice (VAI) as the 2020 recipient of the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice for their impactful work, addressing the inequities and inherent injustice of the criminal justice system. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. On April 5, an event at PEM was scheduled to honor this amazing organization as a champion of human rights and social justice. VAI honors individuals and organizations in remembrance of the lessons from the Salem Witch Trials.

Tompkins Harrison Matteson, Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692, 1855 Oil on canvas. Gift of R. W. Ropes. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Mark Sexton and Jeffrey R. Dykes/PEM.


Attendees of this event would visit Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle and reflect on racism, injustice and the cry for freedom in the United States. It seemed significant that the awardee, VAI and PEM were all converging to honor Jacob Lawrence and the enduring power of art to create an opportunity to reflect upon racism rooted in America. We could at the same time amplify the voice of a champion of justice. Then, the pandemic hit and the event was canceled.


A man facing a yellow wall looking at the paintings on it.

Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.


Like the MBF, VAI is looking for ways to respond to the urgent impetus for people to understand how unjust our system actually is. In addition to stewarding the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, which is right beside PEM, the organization amplifies voices and works to inspire our worldwide community to confront fear and social injustice with courage.


A group of people looking at a statue on a street with brick buildings in the background

Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.


Starting small, the MBF has confronted a giant system and made momental change in the lives of thousands of people. Since 2013, the MBF has spent more than $1.3 million to post more than 3,500 bails. Though their goal is decarceration, they are working to affect change within the system, recognizing that radical change is not necessarily imminent. Pretrial incarceration and the cash bail system is unjust and has a disproportionate impact on low-income people. Locking up innocent people because they can't meet bail keeps them from their work and family responsibilities and can have dire consequences.


detail of Hank Willis Thomas, Rich Black Specimen #460, 2017. Aluminum with powder coat and automotive paint.

From the exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, detail of Hank Willis Thomas, Rich Black Specimen #460, 2017. Aluminum with powder coat and automotive paint. Edition 1 of 2, with 1 artist proof. Museum purchase, made possible by the Elizabeth Rogers Acquisition Fund. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


Prior to the outbreak, MBF was able to post bail at every jail and prison in Massachusetts, but there were no contactless or low contact bail posting sites, so the work of MBF was on hold. When Massachusetts ranked third in the nation in total cases of COVID-19 and fourth in deaths, a WBUR headline read Mass. Prisons And Jails Among Hardest Hit. That translates to people who were incarcerated because they were unable to post a bail as low as $40 and were not convicted of a crime, and yet, left unprotected during a public health crisis. Now some facilities are accommodating a contactless or low contact bail posting process — and MBF is working around the clock — knowing that their work can literally save lives.

A woman rests on a chair viewing 2 paintings on a yellow wall

Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.


The first recipient of the Salem Award was Gregory Alan Williams, a hero of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. Since then, winners have included those who have overturned wrongful convictions and worked for human rights in Haiti and Sudan, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers and veterans. In 2018, The GroundTruth Project, which supports the next generation of journalists, received the award.


A glass bowl on a grey table. American artist, bowl engraved with “The Salem Award,” 1992. Gift of Salem Award Foundation. © Peabody Essex Museum.

American artist, bowl engraved with “The Salem Award,” 1992. Gift of Salem Award Foundation. © Peabody Essex Museum.


The VAI remembers, honors and acts. We remember the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials and lives lost and transformed by the events of 1692. We honor today’s champions of human rights raising their voices against injustice.


With Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle still accessible online, we have a chance to stop and reflect. Our hope is that with an understanding of the ideals that motivate the work of VAI and of the MBF, individuals will also be motivated by the artist’s powerful exhibition to gain clarity, find courage and take action.


Jacob Lawrence, . . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775, Panel 1, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56.

Jacob Lawrence, . . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775, Panel 1, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56. Egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.


To learn more about Massachusetts Bail Fund and to donate, go to their website. Their partners at Families for Justice as Healing have recently put together a call to action guide, suggesting ways to get involved in the work while minimizing social contact during the pandemic.

The museum staff wishes everyone health, safety and calm during the COVID-19 shutdown. Museums provide light and inspiration during challenging times. We will be creative in maintaining PEM’s relationship with you in this time of crisis. We look forward to welcoming you back to the museum when the public health crisis has subsided. For more information and updates, please visit pem.org and keep in touch through our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.


A view of the entrance to PEM with a blue banner that says "Until we meet again..."

Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.


Fara Wolfson

Fara Wolfson is a special education teacher, curriculum writer and ally/activist living in Salem. She is also one of the Co-Chairs of Voices Against Injustice.

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