HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (WSAV) – Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has died. She passed away Monday night at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
Morrison was 88 and the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize, awarded in 1993. Her novel “Beloved,” in which a mother makes a tragic choice to murder her baby to save the girl from slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988.
Morrison leaves behind much more than the pages of her books in libraries across the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Hilton Head Island is home to one of twenty benches set up by the Toni Morrison Society based in Atlanta.
That group’s website says the Bench by the Road Project is a memorial history and community outreach initiative of the Toni Morrison Society. The Project was launched on February 18, 2006, on the occasion of Toni Morrison’s 75th Birthday.
The name “Bench by the Road” is taken from Morrison’s remarks in a 1989 interview with World Magazine where she spoke of the absences of historical markers that help remember the lives of Africans who were enslaved and of how her fifth novel, Beloved, served this symbolic role:
“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 . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to” (The World, 1989).
Because the Toni Morrison Society wanted to be a place where scholars and readers could, through their engagement with Morrison’s novels, remember not only slavery but also many of the forgotten moments in African American history, the Society chose, when it was founded in 1993, “A Bench by the Road” as its motto. The Bench by the Road Project extends the Society’s mission.
While there have been several notable African American history and slavery museums built since 1989, as well as a number of outstanding state and federal initiatives honoring the stories of the African American past, the goal of the Bench by the Road Project is to address the lament that Morrison expressed in her interview by placing benches and plaques at sites commemorating significant moments, individuals, and locations within the history of the African Diaspora.
Since 2006, the Toni Morrison Society has placed 20 Benches at sites, including Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina; Walden Woods in Lincoln, Massachusetts; The 20th Arrondissement in Paris, France; Fort-de-France, Martinique; and, most recently, the Schomburg Center in Harlem, New York.
On Hilton Head Island, their Bench by the Road is set up in Historic Mithcelleville’s Freedom Park. It was dedicated there in April 2013 by the Society, selected because of the old town’s unique place in African American history.
Mitchellville became home to runaway slaves seeking safety behind the Union Army following the Battle of Port Royal in 1862. The town was set up to help the former slaves build a community. Mitchellville had is own elected leaders, both religious and civic, creating the first town run by blacks, for blacks, during and after the civil war. It became the first town in South Carolina to mandate school attendance mandatory for children.
It’s this history that makes the Hilton Head community a perfect place for a bench by the road. The town was a place where African Americans built social and cultural institutions in the face of adversity before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
The bench, the eighth one to be placed, was put at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park to commemorate the founding of Mitchelville, South Carolina, according to the park’s website. Morrison’s legacy is more than literary in the Lowcountry, remembering this important piece of Gullah heritage and history.