On Saturday, novelist Toni Morrison gathered with a crowd of supporters on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, to dedicate a “bench by the road” celebrating the lives and legacy of millions of slaves. The commemorative site is established nearly twenty years after Morrison expressed the necessity for such a memorial in an interview with World magazine, saying, “There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road.”
Morrison’s statement inspired the Toni Morrison Society, a nonprofit group of scholars and readers of the Nobel laureate’s work, to implement the “Bench by the Road” project, which placed its first bench at Fort Moultrie, a historic park on the west end of Sullivan’s Island, with the help of the National Park Service.
“The bench is welcoming, open,” Morrison told the New York Times. “You can be illiterate and sit on the bench, you can be a wanderer or you can be on a search.”
Sullivan’s Island, located outside of Charleston, was an entry point for roughly 40 percent of the millions of enslaved Africans that were brought to North America. A plaque placed at the memorial site states that “nearly half of all African-Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island.” Fort Moultrie plans to house an exhibition on African heritage at its visitors center beginning next summer.
With the assistance of corporations, community organizations, and individuals, the Toni Morrison Society hopes to place ten additional benches in sites across the country that have significance in African American history over the next five years. Potential locations include Oberlin, Ohio, a stop on the Underground Railroad close to Morrison’s childhood home in Lorain; Fifth Avenue in Harlem, where the 1917 Silent Parade protested riots in East St. Louis, an event portrayed in Morrison’s novel Jazz (Knopf, 1992); and the site outside Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, giving rise to the civil rights movement.
“It’s never too late to honor the dead,” Morrison said at the memorial’s dedication, which included the tossing of a daisy wreath into the water as African drums were played. “It’s never too late to applaud the living who do them honor.”