A Bench by The Road

by Anita D Russell
VP Media Relations Dr. Edna B. McKenzie Pittsburgh Branch of ASALH
April 2020

An ASALH Moment to Remember: A Bench by the Road

Back in the summer of 2019, while speaking at a local educational event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I met a woman by the name of Cynthia Devine-Kepner. It was one of those extraordinary encounters where two people just click. Turns out she was a member of the Dr. Edna B. McKenzie Branch of ASALH (Association for the Study of African American Life and History). She in turn introduced me to Ann Mason, who at the time was serving as the vice president of the Pittsburgh branch.

104th Annual Meeting and Conference, 2019

Those two introductions led me to ASALH, a national organization dedicated to carry forth the legacy of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History. After an engaging meeting with Ann, I decided to become a member at both the local and national levels. It was such an honor to have Ann as a friend. As a newly inducted member ofASALH, Ann encouraged me to do two things—to attend the ASALH 104th Annual Meeting and Conference in North Charleston, South Carolina, and to participate in the Author’s Book Signing Event. Ann had read my book, I Wanna See Laney’s House: A Sibling Story, enjoying it enough to make the recommendation. On October 2, 2019, I made my way to North Charleston with no real idea of what the experience would be. I simply took Ann at her word.

The theme of the conference was “Black Migrations”. If I had to select one sentence to sum up my overall experience it would be this: The ASALH organization does an exceptional job of living up to its mission to promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community. I was glad to be there!

African American Heritage Bus Tour

While attending the meeting and conference, I decided to add the post-conference African American Heritage Bus Tour to my itinerary. Anyone who knows me would know that I have a deep appreciation for African American History — that is the undistorted view; the view that speaks our narrative truth to power; the view that brings into the present our generational contributions, not just in America but across the diaspora and throughout the world. The tour was sponsored by Dominion Energy and the National Underground Network to Freedom. The focus of the “Around Charleston” Tour was African arrival, African survival, African diffusion and African legacy. The tour included multiple stops of historical significance — the McLeod Plantation on James Island, Sullivan’s Island and Fort Moultrie near a pest house, and the House at Charles Pinckney National Historic Site.


Though there were many reason for the tour to be filed away in my memory of great experiences, I will only mention a few here, starting with the McLeod Plantation, located on James Island, South Carolina, established in 1851 and best known for the production of Sea Island Cotton. The plantation, recognized as a Gullah/Geechee heritage site, still houses the original slave quarters dating back to mid-1800’s. Here we got a lesson on how bricks were made by enslaved Africans, including the children. After the wooden molds were removed, the clay bricks were laid on the drying floor. To help the bricks dry properly, they had to be turned by hand while still damp. Left behind were the fingerprint and handprint indentations of the children who were lifting and turning, documenting the fact that enslaved children often worked on the plantation along with the adults. Throughout Charleston the bricks were shipped and used to build many fine structures, which tourists enjoy today — completely unaware of what was left behind on the bricks.

In Search of a Bench by the Road

Ironically built for protection from invaders, Sullivan’s Island is now remembered as a major entry point for the arrival of newly enslaved Africans during the 18th century. Fort Moultrie dates back to the American Revolutionary War. Here the African Passages Museum Exhibit includes artifacts such as middle passage charcoal art works, Gullah art, West African objects, leg shackles and slave identification badges. Located near Fort Moultrie was a pest house. Pest houses were established in the early 1700s to quarantine the newly arrived enslaved Africans to ensure that they were healthy, disease-free, and ready to be sold in Charleston.

For me the highlight of the Sullivan’s Island stop was sitting on a bench by the road with fellow authors. “Bench by the Road” is a project initiated in 2006 by the Toni Morrison Society. The name is taken from a 1989 interview with World Magazine where Morrison speaks of the absence of historical markers designed to remember the lives of enslaved Africans. An historical marker was finally erected in 1990, commemorated in 1999 to recognize Sullivan’s Island as “A place where Africans were brought to this country under extreme conditions of human bondage and degradation. . . .We commemorate this site as the entry of Africans who came and who contributed to the greatness of our country.”


Authors Enjoying A Bench by Road, Charlotte, South Carolina

There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presence, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is not suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there is 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 (that I know of), the book had to.

Toni Morrison, accepting the Melcher award on October 12, 1988, presented by Unitarian Universalist Association (UU World)

Finally, we ended the tour at the House at Charles Pinckney National Historic Site with a delectable picnic, delicious food, and delightful conversations. Charles Pinckney, one of the original drafters of the United States Constitution, owned the property that houses the Charles Pinckney Historical Site. The Charles Pinckney Historic Site demonstrates the role that enslaved Africans contributed to the development of the United States, particularly in the production of rice and indigo. The site reminded me of a beautiful gold coin with two faces. One face of the coin commemorates a great constitution, a system of principles to become the bedrock of a nation’s freedom and liberty. The other face of the coin commemorates the tragedy of constitutional authors who had the capacity to hold two opposing beliefs in their minds — the acceptance of freedom and liberty for some, juxtaposed with the acceptance of enslavement and human bondage for others. Lesson learned here, never take freedom and liberty for granted — for some it’s an historical gift, for others a generational battle for simple recognition that black lives matter, too.

Finally, we ended the tour at the House at Charles Pinckney National Historic Site with a delectable picnic, delicious food, and delightful conversations. Charles Pinckney, one of the original drafters of the United States Constitution, owned the property that houses the Charles Pinckney Historical Site. The Charles Pinckney Historic Site demonstrates the role that enslaved Africans contributed to the development of the United States, particularly in the production of rice and indigo. The site reminded me of a beautiful gold coin with two faces.

One face of the coin commemorates a great constitution, a system of principles to become the bedrock of a nation’s freedom and liberty. The other face of the coin commemorates the tragedy of constitutional authors who had the capacity to hold two opposing beliefs in their minds — the acceptance of freedom and liberty for some, juxtaposed with the acceptance of enslavement and human bondage for others. Lesson learned here, never take freedom and liberty for granted — for some it’s an historical gift, for others a generational battle for simple recognition that black lives matter, too.

Dad-Daughter Story of the ‘Underground Railroad’ of College Football

by Ronald Saunders
President of the Dr. Edna B. McKenzie Pittsburgh Branch of ASALH
December 2020

A Moment in History:
Through the Banks of the Red Cedar

My friend, Goochie Stevens’ daughter, Kelli Stevens Kane, is a close friend of the producer of this excellent documentary, Through the Banks of the Red Cedar, by Maya Washington. Goochie,  Eugene Stevens, is the older brother of Tim Stevens, Chairman & CEO of The Black Political Empowerment Project, B-PEP. As I recall, the 1966 Michigan State University team was not only diverse but also had four Black number one draft choices in the 1967 NFL draft which is still quite impressive.  All four of these number one draft choices, Gene Washington, Bubba Smith, George Webster and Clint Jones are members of the prestigious College Football Hall of Fame.

Two of the greatest college teams in history

They also had a Black starting QB whose name was Jimmy Raye. Michigan State finished the 1966 season with a 9-0-1 record. They tied the Fighting Irish in the last game of the season 10-10.  The 1965 and 1966 Michigan State teams were two of the greatest college teams in history. That 1966 game between Michigan State and Notre Dame featured Butler, PA High School’s Terry Hanratty at QB and Rocky Bleier at halfback for the Irish. Both Hanratty and Bleier would play on Super Bowl teams with the Steelers. All World linebacker, George Webster also played with the Steelers in 1972 and 1973 but his serious health problem limited his performance on the field of play.

Webster was a beast at Michigan State and with the Houston Oilers. Webster made the AFL All Time Team and Michigan State retired his famous number 90. Brother Webster died on April 19, 2007. Webster would finish his career with the Patriots in 1974-76.Many believe that George Webster was the greatest Spartan Football Player in the history of Michigan State. 

deep historical connection from western Pennsylvania to Michigan State

I will be curious to watch how Webster is portrayed in this documentary. Out of the four brothers mentioned above, Clint Jones was the only one who hailed from the North, that being Cleveland, Ohio. Michigan State retired Clint Jones’ number 26 and Bubba Smith’s number 95 is also retired. There is also a deep historical connection from western Pennsylvania to Michigan State in Willie Thrower being one of the NFL’s first Black QB’s in the modern day era.  Willie Thrower played QB for Michigan State in the early 1950’s and helped the Spartans go undefeated in 1952.  Willie played in two games for the Chicago Bears in 1953 and was cut by the Bears before the start of the 1954 season.

Willie Thrower is from a small town located down the Allegheny river, with the name of New Kensington, PA which is in the backyard of Pittsburgh, PA. There is a statue of the great Willie Thrower shown in his Michigan State uniform at the entrance of Highland High School Stadium in New Kensington, PA.Pittsburgh’s (Carnegie, PA,) Ronnie Hatcher also had a great football career at Michigan State. Ronnie Hatcher was simply a beast on the gridiron.The Kennedy administration had to intervene to get Ronnie Hatcher on the infamous Washington Redskins who were the last team to integrate their squad with Negroes. The owner of the Redskins, the bombastic racist George Preston Marshall, cut Ronnie Hatcher from the team but it wasn’t because of his lack of talent.