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Inspired by Toni Morrison to mark the lives of slaves

Susan Snyder, Inquirer Staff Writer

Updated: Monday, February 16, 2015, 6:31 PM

On April 24, 2014, The Toni Morrison Society placed a bench in Eden Cemetery as part of their Bench By The Road Project which serves to place benches and informational plaques at significant sites around the world where people can go and remember.

In a 1989 interview, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison lamented the lack of markers or signs that attested to the lives of slaves in America. She envisioned benches near spots where enslaved and freed Africans made their mark on history.

Delaware Valley College students Romaine Evans (left) and Rashaad Lightly in Stutman's class. "I have a greater appreciation of history in general," said a fellow student. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
A bench was placed last year at the Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Delaware County, the burial site for several prominent African Americans. RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / Staff Photographer
Craig Stutman , of Delaware Valley College, says that as a historian he can "tell the stories that are waiting to be told." ED HILLE / Staff
Craig Stutman of Delaware Valley College and the Toni Morrison Society, says that in his role as a historian he can "tell the stories that are waiting to be told." ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Photo Gallery: Inspired by Toni Morrison to mark the lives of slaves

More than two decades later, a literary society dedicated to her work has taken on the task of placing benches and informational plaques at sites where history was made.

The effort is the brainchild of the Toni Morrison Society, a group of scholars who in 2006 launched a project to see her wish fulfilled. They called it "Bench by the Road."

Society member Craig Stutman, a Delaware Valley College assistant history professor who cochairs the society's bench committee, has involved his students in the project.

The purpose of the black steel benches, he said, is to help people "to remember, to reflect, to contemplate African American history [or] a moment in African American history."

Last spring, the group erected the 11th bench in the series, near the entrance to Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Delaware County. Before the ceremony, Stutman asked his honors African American history class to research someone buried in the historic black cemetery.

David Schad, 19, a sophomore biology major from Nockamixon, selected Octavius V. Catto, a black educator and civil rights activist who was shot to death during Philadelphia's election day riots on Oct. 18, 1871. Catto was one of several black men killed by whites trying to suppress the African American vote that day.

"I have a greater appreciation of history in general," said Schad, one of the 30 Delaware Valley College students and staffers who attended the ceremony. Others buried there include vocalist Marian Anderson, poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and writer Jessie Fauset.

Now, students are helping with preparations for another bench to be dedicated in May in Nyack, N.Y., honoring Cynthia Hesdra, a former slave who became a successful business owner and opened up one of her properties to the Underground Railroad.

The project's name, "Bench by the Road," comes from a 1989 interview Morrison gave to World Magazine reflecting on her novel Beloved.

"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."

Though there has been growth in African American museums, the Toni Morrison Society sees its project as providing an "outdoor museum" of sorts. Some sites selected are featured prominently in Morrison's novels.

The first bench was placed on Sullivan's Island off the coast of South Carolina in 2008, commemorating Fort Moultrie, the point where many slaves entered America.

To place a bench, the society partners with a community organization, said Stutman, 46. In Collingdale, it was the Friends of Eden Cemetery.

The project has gone international, with one bench in Paris, honoring Louis Delgres, a black French military officer who died fighting for Guadeloupe independence; and another in Martinique, near the birthplace of the poet and anticolonist Aime Cesaire. Other bench sites include Oberlin, Ohio; Hattiesburg, Miss.; Concord, Mass.; George Washington University; First Congregational Church, Atlanta; Lincoln, Mass.; and Mitchelville, S.C.

Two others - one in Jackson, Miss., and another in Middletown, Del. - are scheduled to be dedicated in April.

Stutman, who is white and grew up in Huntingdon Valley and Philadelphia, was exposed to African American literature through his mother, Suzanne Stutman, an English professor at Penn State Abington who teaches African American literature.

As a Penn State undergrad, Stutman delved into the subject himself and liked that it provided a fuller picture of American history. His interest deepened at Temple when he pursued his doctorate in history, specializing in African American history and the Civil War era.

"I would never presume to say I understand the African American experience wholly," said Stutman, of Wyndmoor. "What I can do as a historian is have integrity, and be objective and tell the stories that are waiting to be told and uncovered or unearthed."

Priscilla Jackson, a Delaware Valley College staffer who leads the campus' student diversity group, said Stutman's focus on African American history is welcomed.

"Ever since Dr. Stutman has come to the school, he has opened the eyes of a lot of students," she said.

Students like Bernard Avery, 22, a senior from Philadelphia. He will visit Nyack and conduct research for the bench.

"As soon as I heard about the opportunity, I was excited," said Avery, a psychology major, who is eager to learn more about African American history.

ssnyder@phillynews.com

215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq

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Susan Snyder, Inquirer Staff Writer

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