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Inspired by Toni Morrison, Sullivan's Island 'Bench by the Road' honors the memory of slaves

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'Bench by the Road' tribute to slaves

The role of Sullivan's Island in slave history led author Toni Morrison to visit a decade ago. Above, Morrison rests on the bench placed by the Bench by Road Project at Fort Moultrie -- a bench dedicated to enslaved Africans. File/Staff

Carrying opened yellow umbrellas, a large crowd filled the dock Saturday at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, swaying to the rhythm of the Adande Drummers.

On this humid day, more than 300 years after the first boat carrying newly enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic Ocean and delivered its human cargo barely a mile away, the mood was upbeat but also bittersweet.

When strains of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" burst from the crowd, the melody set the stage for writer Toni Morrison, 77, the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, to come forth and toss a wreath made of yellow daisies into the cove's waters.

This was the Maafa ceremony in remembrance of those 60 million souls torn from their homeland and their loved ones, and brought into a life of pain and misery, and it was also for those who never made it.

As the wreath floated from sight, a black steel bench, a more tangible symbol of remembrance, was set in cement overlooking the cove in a ceremony called "The Bench by the Road."

Placed and maintained by the National Park Service, the bench provides a place to sit and recall the travails of ancestors in a spot where 40 percent of all those who survived the Middle Passage set foot on the North American continent for the first time.

Both ceremonies were outreach programs of the Fifth Biennial Conference of the Toni Morrison Society, an international organization hosted by the College of Charleston for four days last week.

Carolyn Denard of Brown University, president of the Toni Morrison Society, said the idea for the bench project came from Morrison's remarks in an interview about her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Beloved."

In that 1989 interview, Morrison said: "There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of or recollect the absences of slaves ... no wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. ... There's no 300-foot tower, no small bench by the road that I can visit or you can visit. ... And because such a place doesn't exist ... the book had to."

Michael Allen of the National Park Service and coordinator of the Gullah and Geechee heritage Division there, told the crowd gathered under a tent that Sullivan's Island was where four "Pest Houses," were built 1708-99 to quarantine slaves so they would not pass on diseases from Africa.

The Bench by the Road is a 6-foot-long structure with a small bronze plaque mounted on its back. The bench, to be secured by the National Park Service at Fort Moultrie, will be accessible to all who wish to visit it. Over the next five years, the society plans to mark 10 of these sites, calling attention to their meanings in Morrison's novels.

Despite the strides made in black-white relations, much needs to be changed, Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, a professor at Coppin State University in Baltimore, told the crowd on the dock:

The past "is a great disaster we must always remember, Africans forced into the holds of ships. But even now, we see a day-to-day process of brutalization and humiliation. But now we reclaim this space, just as we reclaim our literature, our dances and our connection to nature."

The bench ceremony also brought cultures together. Satomi Inoue of Kobe, Japan, an English teacher and Morrison Society member, said, "Slavery is a foreign subject to me, but I love the writing of Toni Morrison."

Charles Duell, president of the Middleton Place Foundation, had brought a copy of the book "Beyond the Fields" about slavery at Middleton Place Plantation, which he was going to give to Morrison.

Society member and actress Phylicia Rashad, the first black actress to win a Tony Award, said how fortunate she felt to be giving a tribute to Morrison Saturday night at a banquet celebrating the 15th anniversary of the society.

Prior to sitting on the 6-foot bench, Morrison stood by it, facing the crowd and said, "This is so exciting and extremely moving. I'm delighted to be the first to sit on one of the first places 'to be by the side of the road.' "

Sponsored by the International Literary Society, the Morrison Society has about 600 members representing 12 countries. The Sixth Morrison Society Biennial will be held in 2010 in Paris.

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