Bench a place to rest and contemplate the African American experience

The Bench By The Road, a Toni Morrison Society project, was placed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, July 26, 2008.

If you somehow find yourself with a couple hours of down time this week, drive out to Sullivan’s Island.

Instead of going to the beach, go to Fort Moultrie.

At the Visitor’s Center, there is a small park at the water’s edge.

Among shady oaks and palm trees sits a 6-foot-long black, steel bench overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.

The Toni Morrison Society project is called A Bench By The Road. The bench was installed on July 26, 2008, and is maintained by the National Park Service.

The idea came from a speech the writer made in 1989 saying there were no monuments to enslaved Africans. “There is no suitable memorial or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there is no small bench by the road,” according to the society’s website.

A plaque says the bench is “in memory of enslaved Africans who perished during the Middle Passage and those who arrived on Sullivan’s Island, a major point of entry for Africans who entered the U.S. during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.”

The bench was the first of many to be placed around the country to honor slaves.

It’s a great idea.

With a little history and reflection, the bench makes for a wonderful midday respite.

I spent a quiet, peaceful half hour there last week. The well-manicured park was nearly empty. A large family was leaving as I arrived.

A lone woman with two rods fished from a nearby pier. Two people in a boat cruised by, and a National Park Service boat sat at the dock, a lone American flag perched on top.

Seagulls flew over and a lone bird, I am guessing a crane, perched on a tree limb just above my head. It squawked a couple of times but otherwise was quiet as if to respect my solitude.

Despite the 90-plus-degree temperature, the bench was shaded and a steady breeze made for a comfortable afternoon.

After a brief time on the bench, I made a quick trip inside the visitor center.

Along the way I met a Maryland couple who was visiting the fort and heading toward the park. I mentioned the bench; they promised to check it out.

Inside the center, there are several exhibits, including the African Passages, which tells all about the transatlantic slave trade.

You will learn that nearly half of all African-Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island.

The island had several “pest houses” to quarantine slaves and others suspected of contracting diseases during the up to eight-week voyages from western Africa.

Between 1500 and 1870, an estimated 10 to 12 million Africans were shipped to the Western Hemisphere.

Chief Ranger Dawn H. Davis said many visitors come in asking about the bench and wanting to learn more about the African-American story. The exhibit has won an award.

Those who have not heard about the bench learn about it as part of the bigger picture, she said.

Many don’t know about all the exhibits. She encourages everyone to come by.

School children are brought in all year long to learn more about history and the Revolutionary War fort.

“We are more than brick and cannon”, Davis said.

So a trip to Fort Moultrie is well worth the drive.

And so is A Bench By The Road.

Reach Assistant Features Editor Shirley A. Greene at 937-5555, or