Toni Morrison bench helps Hilton Head, Mitchelville remember its past

bheffernan@islandpacket.comApril 16, 2013 

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Carolyn Denard, left, La Vinia Jennings, center, and other members of the Toni Morrison Society, are shown here after the unveiling of the "Bench by the Road" during its dedication ceremony Tuesday afternoon at the Mitchelville Freedom Park on Hilton Head Island.

SARAH WELLIVER — Sarah Welliver Buy Photo

Thanks to one of the nation's most celebrated authors, people interested in learning the history of Mitchelville now have a place to reflect upon the importance of America's first self-governing community of freed slaves.

The Toni Morrison Society, in partnership with the Mitchelville Preservation Project, dedicated a bench Tuesday in honor of the historic settlement in Mitchelville Freedom Park, off Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island.

The bench is the eighth the society has placed as part of its Bench by the Road series, which began with a dedication on Sullivan's Island near Charleston in 2008. Among the other locations are Oberlin, Ohio; Paris, France; and George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The project was inspired by an excerpt of an interview that Morrison, a Nobel laureate, conducted with World Magazine in 1989. In it, Morrison said: "There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There is no 300-foot tower. There's no small bench by the road," where people can reflect upon slavery and what sprang from it.

Sunlight peeked through the oak canopy and a salty breeze blew from the sound Tuesday afternoon as about 100 people gathered in the park for the bench's unveiling.

Leaders and officials from the Mitchelville Preservation Project, Penn Center, Town of Hilton Head Island and the Toni Morrison Society celebrated the new site and contemplated what the bench might offer visitors.

It could be a place to find inspiration, said Hilton Head Mayor Pro Tem Bill Harkins, or to imagine the lives of Mitchelville's first residents as they experienced freedom, said Randy Dolyniuk, chairman of Mitchelville Preservation Project. It could also be simply "a place you can sit and reflect," said Joyce Wright, spokeswoman for the Mitchelville project.

A memorial that encourages introspection is perhaps fitting for a historical site where few structures remain.

"The town has been swept away by the wind and time, but its memory remains in the hearts and minds of the African-Americans of Gullah decedents, whose ancestors developed and governed the town," said Ben Williams, co-chairman of the Mitchelville project's research and education committee.

Of the original village structures, only the First African Baptist Church and Queen Chapel remain, Williams said.

The village was built on land set aside by Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel -- the settlement's namesake -- for escaped slaves after Union troops drove Confederates off the island in 1861. The community formed in 1862 -- a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. By 1865, Mitchelville had more than 1,500 residents.

The memorial will be a place to reflect on that community and all they accomplished, said Carolyn Denard, founder of the Toni Morrison Society.

"This is truly a story to pass on," she said.

Anita Walker said she had never heard of Mitchelville before moving to the island from the Midwest two years ago, but her late mother had instilled in her a love and pride for the African-American story.

When pianist Lavon Stevens led the audience in a rendition of "Kum Ba Yah," a song originating from the Gullah islands, Walker began to weep. She remembered her mother plucking that same tune on a kalimba, an African instrument also known as a thumb piano.

"I just wish my mom was here to see this," she said.

In June, Walker will welcome her Midwestern family to the island for a reunion. She said she will bring her family to Mitchelville.

"It would be fulfilling my mom and family's legacy," she said.

There is no skyscraper lobby or 300-foot tower on the former grounds of Mitchelville, but there is now a bench.

Related content

  1. Clemson students spend spring break researching Mitchelville genealogy on Hilton Head, March 18, 2013
  2. Money to preserve Mitchelville community on Hilton Head tied up in SC budget debate, May 23, 2012

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