Bench of Memory at Slavery’s Gateway

Anne McQuary for The New York Times

At Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, S.C.: Toni Morrison, far left, led the procession during a ceremony dedicating her “bench by the road,” honoring the memory of slaves who arrived there.


Published: July 28, 2008

SULLIVAN’S ISLAND, S.C. — Toni Morrison has said that her acclaimed novel “Beloved,” which features the ghost of a baby killed by her enslaved black mother, came out of the need for a literature to commemorate slaves and their history. “There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath or wall, or park or skyscraper lobby,” Ms. Morrison said in a 1989 magazine interview. “There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road.”

Skip to next paragraph

Anne McQuary for The New York Times

For those who survived the Middle Passage and those who didn’t: Toni Morrison on her bench on Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

This weekend, on Sullivan’s Island, off the South Carolina coast, Ms. Morrison, the Nobel laureate, and some 300 people held a memorial ceremony to dedicate her long-awaited “bench by the road.” The crowd included members of the Toni Morrison Society, National Park Service rangers, Ms. Morrison’s friends and family, and people from Charleston and nearby areas. They gathered Saturday afternoon under a blazing sun, accompanied by the rhythms of African drums, for a service that included the pouring of libations and a daisy wreath cast into the water to remember their ancestors.

“It’s never too late to honor the dead,” said Ms. Morrison, 77, the author of eight novels, as she sat down on the 6-foot-long, 26-inch-deep black steel bench facing the Intracoastal Waterway. “It’s never too late to applaud the living who do them honor,” she said. “This is extremely moving to me.”

Sullivan’s Island, home to Fort Moultrie, was a point of entry into North America for about 40 percent of the millions of Africans who were enslaved in this country. Carlin Timmons, a park ranger, said that all the estimates were rough, but that historians believe 12 million to 15 million Africans came to the Americas and the Caribbean. Of those 4 to 10 percent were brought to North America.

The bench was secured by the National Park Service, which laid the foundation that included a bronze plaque explaining its significance. It was the first entry in the “Bench by the Road” project, created by the Toni Morrison Society, a nonprofit group of scholars and readers dedicated to examining Ms. Morrison’s work. The society, which was also holding a conference in nearby Charleston, plans in the next five years to call on individuals, corporations and community groups to help them place benches at 10 sites.

The spots under consideration have significance in Ms. Morrison’s novels and in black history. They include Fifth Avenue in Harlem, where the Silent Parade protesting the East St. Louis, Ill., riots was held in 1917 (featured in the novel “Jazz”) and the site of Emmett Till’s 1955 murder in Mississippi, which helped galvanize the civil rights movement.

“We have come back to the place we started from,” Carolyn C. Denard, a founder and the board chairwoman of the Toni Morrison Society, told the audience sitting under a big white tent, some furiously fanning themselves. Dr. Denard, a dean at Brown University, said groups like the Carolina Committee on Remembrance helped with the project.

At its founding in 1993 the society adopted as its motto “a bench by the road,” based on Ms. Morrison’s comments in the 1989 article in World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association. On Saturday part of that interview was read, along with a passage from “Beloved,” which calls on black people to love one another in the face of oppression and brutality.

“When I wrote those words that they read, I was just reminiscing about the necessity for literature, the necessity for African-Americans to make their own art in their own words,” Ms. Morrison said in an interview after the ceremony.

One of her favorite sites for a bench would be in Oberlin, Ohio, a stop on the Underground Railroad near her hometown of Lorain, she said. While a number of museums dedicated to black history have sprung up around the country since 1989, as well as much new scholarship about black history Ms. Morrison said she liked the idea of an “unpretentious” bench for its simplicity and accessibility.

“Well, the bench is welcoming, open,” she said. “You can be illiterate and sit on the bench, you can be a wanderer or you can be on a search.”

And that search is for anyone, not just black people, she added. If anything, with all the talk about race in this year of Senator Barack Obama’s historic candidacy, Ms. Morrison said, she would like to see white people hold a conversation among themselves about the legacy of slavery.

“African-Americans don’t own slavery,” Ms. Morrison said. “It’s not a brand because there were slave masters and there were abolitionists and there were other people who died to see to it that justice was done.”

But before there is reconciliation or healing, there needs to be a better acknowledgment of the past, said many of the participants in Saturday’s ceremony and the society’s conference. That meeting’s theme was “Modernism,” with scholarly sessions like “ ‘Tar Baby’ and Global Capitalism” and “A Modernist Look at Milkman and Hagar in Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon.’ ”

Skip to next paragraph

Anne McQuary for The New York Times

A plaque on the bench created by the Toni Morrison Society.

Thomalind Polite, a 34-year-old speech therapist from Charleston who helped Ms. Morrison throw the wreath into the water, said she came to honor her seventh-generation ancestor Mrs. Polite’s distant relative, whose name was Priscilla, was 10 when she was stolen from Sierra Leone in 1756 and brought to Sullivan’s Island, Mrs. Polite said. She wiped away a tear as she held the hand of her 6-year-old daughter, Faith.

“I feel like a circle closed,” Mrs. Polite said of the ceremony to honor Priscilla and the mostly nameless, faceless people who came to the island, surviving the Middle Passage, the brutal trans-Atlantic journey from West Africa. “She’s finally getting the honor she deserves.”

By next summer an exhibition on the African presence is planned for the visitors’ center in Fort Moultrie, said Michael Allen, an education specialist with the National Park Service. He noted that the first plaque commemorating Africans like Priscilla was placed in 1999, the money raised by, among others, graduates of black high schools in Charleston.

Mr. Allen spoke to the audience about the lives of those Africans. They were quarantined in so-called “pest houses” on Sullivan’s Island — long torn down — before they were sold into slavery. Many in the crowd wept as they read the plaque on the ground, which says that the bench honors the memory of enslaved Africans who arrived on Sullivan’s Island and of those who died during the Middle Passage. It concludes, “Nearly half of all African-Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island.”

On Friday night Ms. Morrison treated conference attendees to a reading from her ninth novel, “A Mercy,” to be published in November by Alfred A. Knopf. In the late 17th century a slave mother has given up her daughter Florens to an Anglo-Dutch trader as partial payment for a debt from a Maryland plantation owner.

Ms. Morrison said in the interview that the novel was her chance to uncouple notions about race from the experience of slavery. Many white indentured servants had an experience that was not so different from that of the enslaved Africans, she said.

“There is a certain history that the historians know about and artists, I think, know less about,” Ms. Morrison said.

“There is no topic on anybody’s table which does not involve black people,” she continued, mentioning education and health care. “And when that disappears in time, then they have to do what they have been avoiding, which is talk about poor people.”

Correction: July 29, 2008
An article on Monday about the dedication of a bench on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., to commemorate slaves and their history — an action inspired by a remark by the writer Toni Morrison — misidentified the location of Fort Sumter. It is in Charleston Harbor near Sullivan’s Island; it is not on Sullivan’s Island.