You’ve heard of Ellis Island in New York, right? The first place some 12 million immigrants from Europe arrived on US soil. There’s another important entry port not quite so celebratory. Does Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina ring a bell? This residential barrier island 10 miles southeast of downtown Charleston is where an estimated around 200,000 to 360,000 slaves from Africa were first brought before being sold. Nearly half of all living African Americans are said to have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island.
Wessel discovered information about the slave memorial while plotting out a bicycle ride we were doing from Charleston last week. As an aside during a tour of Fort Sumter the day before, a park guide said there was a new slavery monument on Sullivan Island. (Turns out there’s not really a monument.) That got Wessel to thinking about this story he’d read in The New York Times last July, about when writer extraordinaire Toni Morrison came to christen a bench the Toni Morrison Society had installed to memorialize the spot where slaves were first brought.
All we knew was that the bench was maintained by the National Park Service, so we cycled to Fort Moultrie on the southwestern tip of the island to see if it was there. There were no signs, but luckily the visitor center was open for another five minutes and a ranger told us to walk toward the water. Indeed, there it was, Toni Morrison’s metal bench.
The bench was inspired by something the Nobel prize winner said during an interview in 1989 (this quote is taken from the plaque near the bench, but not verified): “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; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. 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.”
Reading that gives me chills. Sitting on the bench did, too, thinking about the thousands of people kidnapped from their homes, treated like animals, brought to a foreign land, and then sold to do hard labor. Wessel and I sat there, soaking in the enormity of it all. I can only hope that if I had lived during slavery, I would have been an abolitionist.
So now I must rail a bit. It embarrasses me that my country doesn’t have one national museum or monument about slavery. (I’ll mention here that Fort Moultrie recently opened a terrific permanent exhibit called “African Passages” to examine Sullivan’s Island slave trade.) To set the record straight, as a Southerner, slavery was not confined to the South. In fact, Rhode Island merchants controlled the majority of the American slave trade. Slavery certainly wasn’t confined to my homeland, either. It’s estimated that “only” 5 to 10 percent of the as many as 15 million Africans taken to the Americas and the Caribbean were brought to the US. But still.
To Charleston’s credit, it has a museum dedicated to slavery, the Old Slave Mart Museum and is working on another. Meanwhile, other national projects are in the works, including, finally, a Smithsonian Museum in the works, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (The architect is from here in Durham!)
But we Americans also need a national museum dedicated solely to slavery, as well as many more “benches by the road.”
Tags: black history, Charleston, Ellis Island, Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Old Slave Mart Museum, SC, slave trade, slavery, South Carolina, Sullivan's Island, Toni Morrison Society