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University Relations

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Feb. 15, 2006
Contact: Maryemma Graham, (919) 549-0668, ext. 207.

KU professor helps plan Bench by the Road project for Toni Morrison’s 75th birthday

LAWRENCE — Maryemma Graham, University of Kansas professor and president of the Toni Morrison Society, will lead society members and invited guests, including some young artists from Lawrence, in celebrating the Nobel Prize-winning author’s 75th birthday Friday, Feb. 17, at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Morrison, a distinguished professor of humanities at Princeton, plans to attend the 5:30 p.m. champagne reception in the Chancellor Green Rotunda on that campus. Her birthday is Feb. 18.

To celebrate, the Toni Morrison Society is launching a Bench by the Road project, a literary initiative that will commemorate and recognize 10 sites in Morrison’s novels that are important to African-American history and significant in her work. A specially crafted and painted bench will be placed at each site.

Graham has arranged with Van Go Mobile Arts Inc., a Lawrence arts-based social service agency for youngsters in crisis, to design and paint the benches. Van Go artists Melanie Bolden and Kali Detherage worked six weeks with instructor Cathy Ledeker to prepare the bench. The bench is being shipped by truck to Princeton for presentation at the reception. Graham is on a sabbatical leave from KU to serve as the John Hope Franklin Fellow at the National Humanities Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Carolyn C. Denard, founder and chair of the Society Board, said: “We want the project to mark a few of the lesser-known places that not only are important sites in our history but also sites that are particularly significant in her work.” Examples of possible sites include Harlem’s Fifth Avenue, where the 1917 Silent Parade was held; the site of Emmett Till’s death in Mississippi; train station sites in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia where thousands began their journey in the Great Migration; and an all-black town in Oklahoma.

“We will solicit corporate donations to pay for each of the benches, and each bench will have a plaque describing the commemoration, the donor’s name, the society’s name and the date. We see this as a five- to 10-year project,” Denard said.

The Bench by the Road is the latest of several literary and scholarly projects sponsored by the Toni Morrison Society. In 2005, the society joined the KU Department of English to support a National Endowment for the Humanities teaching project titled “Language Matters II: Reading and Teaching Toni Morrison.” It included a one-week seminar at Northern Kentucky University in July, preceding the biennial Morrison Society conference in Cincinnati.

Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton. Her major awards include the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Beloved and the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature for her body of work.

Since her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, Morrison has written or edited numerous books, including eight novels, collected essays, children’s books and a play. Her recent work includes the libretto for “Margaret Garner,” a new opera composed by Richard Danielpour based on the life of an enslaved Kentucky woman who inspired Beloved. Opera companies in Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia all commissioned productions. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison earned degrees at Howard and Cornell universities.

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