Posts Tagged ‘Ellis Island’

Toni Morrison invites you to take a seat

June 15, 2009

200906_27b_Sullivans Island benchYou’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.

The bench on the grounds of the park at Fort Moultrie

The bench at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island is a somber reminder of slavery

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.

The bench was inaugurated in July 2008

The bench was inaugurated in July 2008

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.

Writer and Nobel winner Toni Morrison (photo Wikipedia Commons)

Writer and Nobel winner Toni Morrison (photo Wikipedia Commons)

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.”

Diane contemplates the meaning of the bench

Sitting on the bench, Diane can't help but contemplate what once took place here

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.

View across the marsh from the bench

From the bench you see Charleston Harbor

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.

Entrance of Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, SC

The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston

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.”

Melting-pot tour of New York City

August 14, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published July 20, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: Connie planned a very interesting trip for her children and the family’s German exchange student. I’m impressed!

Owen Corey (left), Ian Corey, Len Corey, Corry Kieper, and Connie Corey on Ellis Island (Click to ENLARGE)

Owen Corey (left), Ian Corey, Len Corey, Corry Kieper, and Connie Corey on Ellis Island (Click to ENLARGE)

WHO: Connie, 47, and Len Corey, 49, with their children Ian, 14, and Owen, 12, all of Reading, Mass., and Corry Kieper, 16, of Essen, Germany.

WHERE: New York City

WHEN: Two days in March

WHY: “We had a high school exchange student from Germany for three weeks and wanted to show her as much as possible,” Connie Corey said. That included visits to Salem, Boston, Plimoth Plantation, New Bedford, and Newport. “For me the best part of the New York trip was the idea of being able to show someone from a foreign country how much that city is truly a melting pot.”

Connie (left), Owen , Ian, and  Corry at the entrance to the Ellis Island Museum (Click to ENLARGE)

Connie (left), Owen , Ian, and Corry at the entrance to the Ellis Island Museum (Click to ENLARGE)

IMMIGRANT ISLAND: The family stayed at a hotel in Newark to save money. “It’s cheaper to stay there, and my husband went to school in New York and isn’t afraid to drive in the city,” Corey said. They arrived on a Thursday night and started sightseeing Friday morning with a trip to Ellis Island, which Corey said was easier to reach from the New Jersey side. “All three of the kids had studied it in school and were interested in history, so they really enjoyed it.” They drove into Manhattan, where they found parking right outside their lunch spot, Christine’s Polish American, an East Village diner serving Eastern European dishes. “We had the best parking luck all weekend.”

Connie (left), Corry, Len, and  Ian in New York's financial district (Click to ENLARGE)

Connie (left), Corry, Len, and Ian in the financial district (Click to ENLARGE)

TOWN AND TUNNEL: After visiting a popular section of Central Park, “where all the movies are filmed,” they fought their way through the crowds at the Museum of Modern Art‘s “Target Free Friday.” “There were 500 people in line, but at least it was moving. It was so crowded that you couldn’t really see the museum, but there is such excellent modern art there.” They visited Rockefeller Center and drove through Times Square before heading back through the Holland Tunnel.

LIVING IN AMERICA: Saturday started with a trip to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which presents a look at migrant and immigrant life in the 19th and 20th centuries. “They would have 12 people in an tiny apartment with a bathroom down the hall and no tub or shower. It’s really about trying to understand people’s lives and the dreams, the risk, and the work that these people were willing to do to get here. It really puts into perspective how the American Dream has changed.”

CIAO FOR NOW: After enjoying the sounds from Italian-speaking diners at Rocky’s Restaurant in Little Italy, the kids had a field day in Economy Candy. “It’s about 12 feet wide and 50 feet long with floor-to-ceiling candy, with every candy imaginable,” Corey said. After a stop at the Gothic masterpiece Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, they headed home, mission accomplished.