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Travel Thoughts On A Subpar Memorial To South Carolina African American History-Sullivan’s Island

Saunter Sunday-Travel, walk, think. This blog is under the category of Travel Tales

Over the past few years, I have written this blog several times over, ad nauseam Sometimes I change the title for MLK Day or for Juneteenth but I never seem to let my story or perspective fly away.

I think it is because I have been intimidated. I am a person with this light white skin and blue eyes, hailing out of what was once a white town in Wisconsin. Yet, I have lived under many moons since I have left.  Even being fairly well-read with a natural curiosity regarding social justice, I do not profess to be any type of expert on race. But, I am an expert on my cousin. I love her.

A few years ago, I was hanging out with my beautiful cousin who happens to be half African and half European. Ethiopian and German.  In appearance, my cousin looks the opposite of my race. She has beautiful large brown eyes, smooth medium-toned dark skin, and the opposite of my stick-straight hair, this gorgeous head of thick black hair with waves.  Growing up together I really do not remember discussing her experience living in a small town midwestern town with zero minorities.  Maybe we did, I just don’t remember. But on this day, we did. It is a long story and yet I only remember small parts of this discussion.  I do remember her saying that she feels as though she is not always backed up by the friends and family from her hometown. This breaks my heart. Sometimes it was just simple backup needed such as halting language that is being used.

I do remember professing my support of her and her young family and promised her that with my days on this earth as a cousin, as a sister in humanity, I will speak up always and most especially when I am back in this small town (near where I grew up.)

I gave her my heart on this subject and today I am thinking so what if I am not an expert, I can learn, I can stand with my friends and family to stamp out racism and injustice in any small way that uplifts the one human story that we should be. 

Maybe that was too long of an introduction for a travel story, but that is how this happened,  my being unable to shake off what I see as a place, a story, both in great need of telling, a need for improvement and exposure.

A few years ago, I moved from Alabama to South Carolina.  S.C.  is a state with natural beauty from mountains to the ocean and I never seem to have enough time to explore the splendor that this state holds. Recently I have been spending some time goofing off on the lovely Sullivan’s Island located across the marshes from Charleston.

If you follow my blog, you may know that I love, stand for, and actively work to protect our National Parks and Monuments. I try to visit any and all of them. Over the course of a few days, with some time to spend, I did my part by visiting Fort Moultrie while wandering around Charleston and Sullivan’s Island. 

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A visit to Fort Moultrie, Sullivans Island, South Carolina

I expected to learn about the protection of the Charleston Harbor, and I certainly did, but, what piqued my interest, and made me feel sad, curious, and shocked,  was the history or lack thereof, that I had not known about.  A cultural history that is not pretty, sexy, and not necessarily uplifting;  and yet when I began to consider how …..

The first thing that made my mind explode or better worded opened my mind, was a sign or a plaque located on Fort Moultrie…

Sullivans island sign

Sullivan’s Island-The sign at Fort Moultrie

it reads;

“This Is Sullivan’s Island

A place where…Africans were brought to this country under extreme conditions of human bondage and degradation. Tens of thousands of captives arrived on Sullivan’s Island from the West African shores between 1700 and 1775. Those who remained in the Charleston community and those who passed through this site account for a significant number of the African-Americans now residing in these United States. Only through God’s blessings, a burning desire for justice, and persistent will to succeed against monumental odds, have African-Americans created a place for themselves in the American mosaic.

A place where…We commemorate this site as the entry of Africans who came and who contributed to the greatness of our country. The Africans who entered through this port have moved on to meet the challenges created by injustices, racial and economic discrimination, and withheld opportunities. Africans and African-Americans, through the sweat of their brow, have distinguished themselves in the Arts, Education, Medicine, Politics, Religion, Law, Athletics, Research, Artisans and Trades, Business, Industry, Economics, Science, Technology and Community, and Social Services.

A place where…This memorial rekindles the memory of a dismal time in American history, but it also serves as a reminder for a people who – past and present, have retained the unique values, strength, and potential that flow from our West African culture which came to this nation through the middle passage.”

The bottom of the sign notes; “Erected in 1990 by S.C. Department of Archives and History. The Charleston Club of S.C. and the Avery Research Center….June 8,1990…”

I began to wonder if this was the major port of entry for African American slavery in the United States was this like Ellis Island or Montreal’s Grosse Isle? Was there a United States version of Ghana’s House of Slaves with a Door of No Return?

Standing outside on this chilly day, I did a quick google search which led me to a memorial that was supposedly on the island, a bench of any kind. I had gone on a tour and had not heard mention of this, I quickly looked around and saw no indications of any memorial.

On the tour, I learned about Oceola, the Seminole Chief, who fought against government occupation in Florida.  He was imprisoned and died at Fort Moultrie and has a gravesite and memorial.

Sullivan's Island Fort Moultrie NP

The grave of Seminole Chief Oceola who died and was buried at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, SC

But, I thought, here, multitudes of people died in body and soul during the journey of enslavement, so where was the monument?

I headed back inside to the museum and into the small room where there was a display of African Americans and Sullivan Island from slavery to hope. Huh.

Fort Moultrie slaves Obad

Fort Moultrie museum displays.

The museum display is done so that slaves are named and humanized through their stories.

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Sullivan’s Island Fort Moultrie museum and the story of slavery on the island

the story wraps around the room and enters the world of today.

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Fort Moultrie’s Museum and the slavery display moves from the past into the present.

And yet, I still had not seen the information that I was seeking so I went to the information desk and was pointed out the rear exit door. I had to walk all the way around this bench to make certain that this was “THE monument.”

 

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This is the monument. A bench. Near the piled up picnic tables, near the garbage can,

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overlooking the garbage in the water and again I wondered.

sullivans island bench mess

Sullivan’s Island near The Bench By The Road

the bench had a plaque that told a bit more of the story.  With this information, I was able to do a quick Google search. Toni Morrison, an American writer and winner of a multitude of prestigious awards including the:U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nobel Prize award, as well as a Pulitzer Prize recipient for the fictional novel “Beloved.” Toni Morrison died while I held this story in my heart. Now, I change my writing to say that she was known for her writing of the black American life and experience.  I also noticed a plaque on the ground.

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The plaque on the bench p *The* Bench at Sullivan’s Island

The poem reads “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 . . . 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. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to” (The World, 1989)”

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A Bench By The Road placed 7-26-2008, Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

The poem summed up how I had felt and yet I had to wonder what were her exact feelings when she found this site without even a bench? I can’t imagine. I can not.

From the Toni Morrison Society website, I noted that Toni Morrison took some action. “The Bench by the Road Project is a memorial history and community outreach initiative of the Toni Morrison Society. The Project was launched on February 18, 2006, on the occasion of Toni Morrison’s 75th Birthday. The name “Bench by the Road” is taken from Morrison’s remarks in a 1989 interview with World Magazine where she spoke of the absences of historical markers that help remember the lives of Africans who were enslaved and of how her fifth novel, Beloved, served this symbolic role.”

Since 2006, there have been 25 benches placed. The total cost of a bench is $3500.  The benches are to be places of reflection, not just upon slavery, but upon other moments in African American history, the forgotten moment.

Still, I couldn’t help wonder if this country couldn’t do better by this history?  I do know that Charleston had been working unsuccessfully on getting UNESCO World Heritage status. But, in a way, that is a grab bag of subjects. My smart friend who grew up near these areas feels as if especially in the South, UNESCO status is unwanted. That is a whole other blog.

This past November, I noticed with interest that a new memorial is to be built in Charleston harbor and will be called the International Museum of African American Museum.   The museum is scheduled to open in 2021. Although this museum is not on Sullivan’s Island, the description states that this location on Gadsden’s Wharf, where almost half of the imprisoned Africans who were brought to North America on slave ships disembarked in the United States. There will also be several interactive galleries and a Family History Room which will hold genealogy archives and a staff. I was happy to read that there will be a water garden of sorts. The description is as follows “…And as visitors approach the museum from the Charleston Harbor boardwalk, they’ll encounter the Tide Tribute, a pool of water that fills and empties every hour like an ocean tide. As the water’s depth changes, the installation will reveal a now-famous 18th-century diagram published by British abolitionists that depicts hundreds of enslaved Africans lying in close proximity to one another in the Brookes slave ship…”

Through this link, you can view the plans. International African American Museum Charleston S.C International African American Museum

An easier way to see the water exhibit. This link will open on this page.

AFAR IAAM article with photos

Museum officials say the hope is that people will be urged to think about “what is and why” in the context of slavery in the United States.

I am so excited to visit this museum and yet I can not help wonder about what will become of Toni Morrison’s bench.

MEGathoughts: This blog is written with thoughts of my cousin Ababa.

*To note, I do not mean to give the impression that there are not sights in the Chrleston area dedicated to the history of slavery. There are many. Here are a few more spots that you may want to visit while in the Charleston area. There is the Old Slave Mart Museum

Charleston

The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston SC

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Charles Pinckney Home Slave Quarter Sites

 

MEGatips: 

  1. Fort Moultrie link. Fort Moultrie, Sullivan’s Island SC
  2. Toni Morrison Society Bench Project Link Toni Morrison Bench Project

 

 

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