Atlanta literary society dedicates Toni Morrison ‘Bench by the Road’

It sat at the Beckwith Street entrance to the new plaza at the Woodruff Library in the Atlanta University Center, black paint glistening under a bright midday sun.

It had been a long time coming, but the Inquirers Club had finally gotten its “Bench by the Road,” a place to sit and think or not think about “our ancestors who were enslaved and never had a proper memorial.”

The black steel structure is the brainchild of the Toni Morrison Society, a nonprofit group of scholars and readers dedicated to examining the work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Nobel laureate.

The Bench by the Road Project was inspired by comments Morrison made in a 1989 interview that bemoaned the lack of recognition for the history of enslaved Africans. Her novel “Beloved” would serve to mark that history, she said at the time.

“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,” Morrison told The World magazine. “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. … And because such a place doesn’t exist … the book had to.”

And so on a recent Sunday, members of the Inquirers Club, believed to be one of the oldest African-American continuously meeting women’s literary circles in the country, became the 18th organization to sponsor the placement of the specially designed bench both to pay homage to the rich literary tradition that Morrison embodies and the club’s 12 founding members.

Sitting there for a moment during the club’s dedication ceremony was something special, a connection to both the past and future, said Alexis Scott, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution vice president and 30-year member of the club.

“It was a most excellent way to mark our club’s anniversary,” she said.

I first met members of the Inquirers Club in 2009, 100 years after they first met in the living room of Lugenia Burns Hope, wife of John Hope, a founding member of the NAACP and former Morehouse College president.

The story goes that a group of women, mostly faculty wives of Spelman, Morehouse and Atlanta University professors, worked together to establish the Gate City Free Kindergarten Association, which provided day care for needy preschool children of working mothers in the West End. That success and their enjoyment of one another’s company prompted them to start a club for fellowship and intellectual stimulation through discussions of books, art, politics and current events.

Hope invited 11 others one night to come hear a speaker, but the meetings soon grew to include discussions about politics and other issues important to the black community.

The night I met them, they gathered at the home of Margaret Washington Clifford, the granddaughter of Booker T. Washington and one of the club's most distinguished members.

James Early, director of cultural studies at the Center for Folklife Programs at the Smithsonian Institution, told me then that the club’s founding members were known more for their husbands’ often high public profiles and professions.

It was in that context that the wives organized themselves to be current on literary and intellectual matters and to express their individual and collective voices about the plight of the needy black folk — socially and materially.

“Despite class privilege, they exemplified the slogan of precursor organizations of Negro women, ‘Lifting as we climb,’ and continue today as testimony of intergenerational individual and social responsibility to black people and humanity in general,” said Early.

Not just that. They felt a deep obligation to work to uplift the race and help those in need, Scott said. To this day, the Gate City Free Kindergarten Association still operates but under a different name: the Gate City Day Nursery Association.

Just days prior to the bench dedication, I met again recently with Scott, Michelle Smith, a second-generation member, and Yvonne J. Wiltz, whose mother and grandmother were members.

Smith said they chose the Woodruff Library site because it serves all the institutions in the Atlanta University Center, where the spouses of some of its founding members taught at the time.

“When I approached Loretta Parham, the library CEO, about our idea, she revealed that they planned a new streetscape and our bench could be part of it,” Smith said. “We were thrilled that our idea could work out even better than we imagined.”

When they realized revitalization plans were underway at the site that included new landscaping, paving and a gazebo, members agreed the location was perfect.

“It became part of this larger streetscape and refurbishing of the library,” Smith said.

They basked in the club’s long legacy, its work in the community and commitment to uplift their community. The women were among some 25 who gathered for the dedication ceremony.

The excitement was palpable. This was their chance to publicly document forever the women whose lives and work helped build Atlanta’s African-American community and the community at large.

And it felt especially good.