Benches by the Road
Jan 16, 2015
Dr. Craig Stutman, a Delaware Valley College assistant professor of history and policy studies, has had the honor of working with the Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison to tell stories from African-American history.
“It’s hard to put into words how it feels to be around someone who is so wise, kind, powerful and creative,” said Dr. Stutman of working with Morrison.
Dr. Stutman is co-chair of the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench By The Road Committee, a public history initiative that places benches at sites of African-American historical significance.
“The benches operate as both practical resting spots and places where one can reflect upon critical moments in the history of African-Americans,” said Dr. Stutman.
The name "Bench by the Road" comes from a Toni Morrison quote about the lack of historical markers remembering Africans who were enslaved.
"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,” said Morrison in a 1989 interview with The World about her novel “Beloved.” “There's no 300-foot tower, there's no small bench by the road…and because such a place doesn't exist . . . the book had to.”
These words inspired Dr. Carolyn Denard, the Toni Morrison Society’s founder to create the Bench by the Road Project.
Dr. Stutman says that the Society is honoring Morrison’s desire to see these stories recognized with public markers.
“We’re trying to reclaim lost stories and give them a public face,” said Dr. Stutman.
So far, The Toni Morrison Society has placed 11 benches. Each bench tells a compelling story taken from African-American history. Dr. Stutman has been involved with six of the 11 bench placements helping with everything from historical research; to writing the narratives that appear on the plaques that accompany the benches; to working with the communities, institutions, and organizations receiving them to plan dedications.
On May 18, 2015, a new bench will be dedicated in Nyack, New York, honoring the story of Cynthia Hesdra. After Hesdra was freed from slavery she became a wealthy real-estate owner and operator of a thriving business and opened up her Nyack home as a safe house along the Underground Railroad.
The Nyack Commemorative Committee reached out to the Society to memorialize Hesdra’s life. A lot of groups apply for benches and the Society chooses which sites to award markers to.
The bench that is closest to DelVal is located in Eden Cemetery, about an hour from main campus, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.
“The bench at Eden celebrates the larger-than-life figures in African-American history who are buried there,” said Dr. Stutman.
Some of the historical figures who are interred at the cemetery include: Marian Anderson, an African-American contralto singer and musical icon; William Still, a Philadelphia abolitionist and writer who directed a complex network of safe houses to help people escape slavery; Octavius Catto, a civil rights activist who helped end street car segregation in Philadelphia and was killed at a young age fighting for voting rights; and FEW Harper, one of the first black novelists in the nation and an early civil rights activist, who became influential to many African-American authors.
“I take these stories and integrate them into my classes as much as possible,” said Dr. Stutman. “I took several DelVal students to the Eden Cemetery bench dedication last spring, and some of our undergraduate students and graduate policy studies students helped with creating an exhibit for the reception that was held at the African-American Museum in Philadelphia later that evening.”
Dr. Stutman wants to get more DelVal students involved in the Toni Morrison Society’s work through internships and volunteer work.
“The Bench By the Road project offers a chance for students to interact with politicians, community leaders, business and nonprofit leaders, educators, and the like, and could provide them with a chance to gain positive real-world experience,” said Dr. Stutman.
He has had the chance to partner with a diverse array of groups and people, including community development corporations, historic societies, not-for-profits, state representatives and senators, academics, genealogists, church groups, and even the National Park Service, and believes that DelVal students could benefit from seeing how these partnerships work toward a common goal.
In South Carolina, a bench marks Mitchelville, where an independent community of free, self-governing African-American men and women lived in the late 1800s. It sits at the end of a beautiful walkway and trail that overlooks the marshes. The Society tries to find meaningful sites with natural beauty when possible to help encourage visitors to sit and reflect on the stories.
There is also a bench at Walden Pond, honoring Brister Freeman, an African-American farmer who planted an apple orchard on the land, which Henry David Thoreau mentions in “Walden.” A group wishing to bring Freeman’s life out of obscurity contacted The Toni Morrison Society in 2012. The Society worked with Elise Lemire, the author of “Black Walden,” the Henry David Thoreau Society, the Drinking Gourd Project, Save Our Heritage, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and placed the bench in May 2013.
“For me, as a historian, it’s meaningful and critical work,” said Dr. Stutman. “I’m really passionate about sharing these stories.”
The Toni Morrison Society originally approached Dr. Stutman about getting involved with the committee because of his experience working on large-scale projects dealing with African-American history. Before coming to DelVal, Dr. Stutman worked with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and the African-American Museum of Philadelphia on a Preserve America grant, in which he looked at the built environment of African-American history (architecture and physical landscapes) in Pennsylvania. He conducted interviews, research, and wrote a context study for the National Park Service. Dr. Stutman helped obtain National Register of Historic Places status for several sites. This background provided a nice transition to working with the Bench By the Road committee, and eventually becoming its co-chair.