How Route 1 Could Honor Toni Morrison

Photo courtesy of Ron Cogswell

In a 1989 interview, the late Toni Morrison spoke about the lack of historical markers commemorating the country’s brutal history of slavery.

“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,” she said. “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.”

A giant of American literature, Morrison was arguing that her book, Beloved, would have to serve that role instead. But a group of her most dedicated fans took her words in a different direction, setting on a mission to install “a small bench by the road” in places around the country.

Since 2008, the Toni Morrison Society has helped place 20 benches in spots around the country, including Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina; Walden Woods in Massachusetts; and the Schomburg Library in Harlem as well as Paris and Martinique. Many of the places are key to African-American history as spots on the Underground Railroad or homes of abolitionists, while others are important spots in local history.

In the greater Washington area, where Morrison was once both a student and a professor and first began writing “The Bluest Eye,” a bench is located on the campus of George Washington University, where it marks the first integrated theater in D.C.

There are several places around the Route 1 corridor where such a bench would be appropriate: the port of Bladensburg, where slaves were imported; the Riversdale House Museum or the Bostwick House, where slaves were integral to their functioning; the Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church, which has a backstory worthy of a Morrison novel; the University of Maryland, likely constructed with some slave labor; or Lake Artemesia, once home to the black community of Lakeland, to name a few options.

A two-seat bench is available for $3,500, while a four-seat bench costs $5,000. Either one is well within reach for the parks budgets of any of the Route 1 communities.

In the meantime, be sure to check out Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am at the Old Greenbelt Theatre, which opens Aug. 16.

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