“A bench by the road” placed to commemorate enslaved people in Cobb County

The Bench by the Road

On June 18, the day before Juneteenth, a group of people gathered at the Concord Road trailhead of the Silver Comet Trail to watch the unveiling of the “Bench by the Road,” and Matilda’s Garden, inspired by the acclaimed author Toni Morrison’s observation about the lack of monuments commemorating the lives of enslaved people.

This particular bench was also inspired by the lives of a specific family of enslaved Cobb County residents, and their lives after slavery: the Ruff family, who lived on the property now within Heritage Park.

The phrase “bench by the road” was taken from a 1989 interview in World Magazine with author Toni Morrison. Morrison said she considered her novel Beloved a monument to the generations of enslaved people who had no memorials to their experience.

The Toni Morrison Society was inspired by that observation to begin the Bench by the Road project.

The organization posted this excerpt from the famous Morrison interview on its web page for the Bench by the Road project:

“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 effort to place the Bench by the Road alongside the Silver Comet Trail was spearheaded by the Friends of the Concord Covered Bridge, particularly due to the research and urging of Patricia Burns, who began to research Matilda Ruff and her family.

Pat Burns’ research

Pat Burns gave the following account of the research that led to the Bench by the Road and Matilda’s Garden:

Thirty-five years ago, when my family and I moved into this old house, in the kitchen cupboard, I discovered a tattered three-by-five note card. It bore the names Matilda, Calvin, Zeida, and Rhoda.

I felt in my bones those names meant something to somebody. I carefully tucked away the little card until I had time, time to explore: who is Matilda?

A landowner along Nickajack Creek by the name of Martin Luther Ruff, got land during the land lottery of the 1830s.

He also owned, according to the 1860 slave schedule, a black female and three children, a black boy and three little girls. Then, in the 1870 census, after emancipation, their names emerged, and they are Matilda, Calvin, Zeida, and Rhoda. Ironically, Matilda’s lot was right across the street in those woods, which is now Heritage Park.

Somewhere was her dwelling. This formerly enslaved family had to be recognized. We had to call their names in the historic district, where they lived and where they survived.

But Matilda and her children needed more than just a plain plaque or a sign. They deserved something that would stop people. Stop people to look. Stop people to listen. And stop people to reflect. Serendipitously, I read about the Tony Morrison Society and the bench placements.

A bench was the perfect commemorative. A bench of black steel is strong and resilient. A bench is interpretive, and a bench is interactive with the living.

Today, we honor Matilda, Calvin, Zeida, and Rhoda. They represent all of the 3,000-plus formerly enslaved and free blacks in Cobb County. I believe her spirit is with us today, here at the bench in Matilda’s garden.

Dr. Jackie McMorris, the county manager for Cobb County, read a statement on behalf of District 4 Commissioner Monique Sheffield, who was unable to attend due to the Board of Commissioners zoning hearing.

Excerpts from Commissioner Sheffield’s statement

Today marks a significant occasion in District 4’s South Cobb community as we gather to honor the enslaved individuals who were brought to this area by their owners. The Concord Bridge Historic District is rich in history, featuring homes as well as the Concord Bridge on the National Historic Registry.

Yet, this richness also includes a painful past. In 1860, a 40-year-old black woman named Matilda, who worked as a washerwoman and was owned by M.L. Ruff, was one of 250 enslaved persons in South Cobb. And among 3,819 enslaved individuals in Cobb County.

While securing the bench has taken nearly two years, it represents over 164 years of overdue recognition for Matilda Ruff and her family. I extend my deepest gratitude to the friends of the Concord Bridge for their relentless efforts and determination in securing a reflective bench at this site of profound importance. As we gather today to honor the enslaved individuals who once lived and labored in South Cobb, this dedication takes on even a greater significance as we prepare to celebrate Juneteenth tomorrow.

Juneteenth, a day that marks the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, serves as a powerful reminder of the journey toward freedom and equality. This Bench by the Road project, inspired by Toni Morrison’s vision, creates this space, a space for reflection and remembrance, and connects us to the struggles and resilience of those who came before us. By unveiling this bench, we not only honor the memory of Matilda Ruff and others like her, but also reaffirm our commitment to acknowledging and learning from this history as we celebrate the progress symbolized by Juneteenth.

I cannot help but feel that Matilda is here with us in spirit today as we celebrate this momentous occasion, and I hope she feels most honored.

In closing, I thank the Friends of the Concord Bridge for recognizing the enslaved individuals of our area and for their dedication to securing the Bench by the Road in honor of Matilda, her children, and others from the Concord Covered Bridge Historic District.

My thanks also go to Carolyn Denard of the Toni Morrison Society for accepting the Bench proposal for South Cobb County, Representative (Terry) Cummings for her partnership and support, Michael Brantley and his park staff for laying the foundation and walking path to this Bench, Charlie for the landscape, Kimberly White and Keep Cobb Beautiful, Ross Cavitt for capturing this event, and (Dr. Jackie McMorris) for standing in (my) stead.

Georgia Representative Terry Cummings, who represents South Cobb, gave the keynote speech.

Rep. Cummings’ Keynote Speech

Here is the keynote speech delivered by Rep. Cummings:

Before I get started, I just want to recognize a few people. This bench did not come without some fundraising efforts. And when I met Pat, we were actually sitting at Angelia’s event last summer.

I’ll never forget we were sitting, we were trying to stay cool, and Pat told me about this project .. this bench and that she needs money. And I said, okay, I’m going to try to help you get some.

So, there was a lot of effort, a lot of telephone calls, but the fraternities and the sororities did step up. So, first I want to recognize my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. I don’t know if some sororities are here.

They were the first in security. And then we had members of Omega Psi Phi step up to donate and sponsor. I know we have at least two representatives.

And then the brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi stepped in. And then I happened to be talking to our sheriff last week at another event. And I was telling him, making sure he had the invitation.

And somehow money came up. And I told him, yeah, we still need some. So, he went back to his foundation, the Cobb-Sheriff’s Foundation. And they’re donating $1,000. So, I want to thank you for stepping up.

I have a sense that you’ll probably get some more contributions after this. And I didn’t recognize everybody that contributed. Obviously, just the fraternities and the sororities.

But I really want to thank everyone for coming this morning. And I have to say that when I was asked to be the speaker, I was humbled, excited, and overwhelmed all at the same time.

Because to me, this is a really big deal. It’s a glorious occasion. It’s a commemorative occasion.

It’s a celebratory occasion. But it’s also a somber occasion. And I was given, I felt like I was back at school, I was given this book.

And another really thick, round book about Cobb. And told to go home and do some studying and research. So, that’s what I did.

But I’m also the time member today because I can talk about just so much that I’ve learned. But we’re kind of like sending vampires. Nobody wants to be here when the sun really comes out.

So, I’m going to keep my remarks a little bit short. This bench is like the 33 benches before it. Throughout the United States commemorates a significant moment in the history of African-Americans and the history of America.

So, it’s no coincidence that we’re celebrating today, June the 18th, right before June the 19th, which is the official Juneteenth holiday, which other people have spoken about. This day, Juneteenth, is a celebration of freedom for African-Americans. It’s a federal holiday and we celebrate it to recognize our freedom and liberty.

But this day today, us being here today would not have happened truly without Pat Burns and the friends of the Historic Covered Bridge. And I would like them to take another stand. We owe them a debt of gratitude, especially for Pat.

A lot of people would have thrown that note out. They wouldn’t have thought twice about it. And something in Pat’s spirit, something in Pat’s heart would not let them go and cause them to do the additional research.

So, I’m going to give you a little research. A little bit will be repetitive, but hopefully not too much. There’s a census, obviously, going on.

And this book takes note of, and uses a lot of.

So, it’s very factual. Ruff Mill, as most of you know by now, was a major battlefield that occurred on July 4th, I believe 1861, a couple of months after the war started in 1861.

But in 1860, when the census was taken, we had approximately 4 million enslaved Africans and just over 8 million whites that lived in southern states. There were approximately 250,000 free African Americans. Georgia ranked third in slave ownership behind Mississippi and South Carolina.

Enslaved African Americans made up 43.7% of Georgia’s population. In comparison, Cobb County had 27% of its population as slaves. There were 10,410 white, 3,819 slaves.

There were 13 African Americans that were free. They were all from the same family, the Johnson family, and they lived in Marietta. The children’s Russ name is in the census, along with her three children, Calvin, Zeida, and Rhoda.

And they were indeed enslaved by Martin L. Ruff, who owned Ruff’s Mill. But during this time, there were a lot of other large slave owners in the area. Remember, the Civil War started in 1861 and it ended in 1865.

So fast forward five years after the war to 1870 when the census was done again. Well, Matilda Ruff is living in one of the homes now with her children. And her neighbor is Henry Ruff. He was one of the children of the owner. They were neighbors. Matilda had a small business going on.

She was bringing in some work. And her value was $50. Her personal value was $50.

That’s nothing today that can’t even get you an Uber. But back then, it was considered to be pretty well off for five years after slavery when the most jobs that African Americans could get at that time were manual. During this time, both of her daughters they lived in the area, but they were working as servants.

None of the family was working for Ruff Mill. And Martin Ruff himself still lived on the property. And his value, of course, of his personal wealth was a little bit more.

Fast forward ten more years to the 1880 census. Well, you still have Matilda Ruff living in this house. She’s 50 now.

But now she has her adult son Calvin his wife, and their four children living with them. Both of the daughters are out doing their own thing. From what we can tell, Matilda died sometime between 1880 and 1890.

But by 1910, Calvin Ruff and his family, they had moved to the city of Atlanta where it was much easier to get work. And a lot of African Americans started coming from rural, and this area was considered rural, going to Atlanta to find work. A couple years later, 34 years later, they’re still alive working and raising their four children.

So what is the purpose of this bench? Well, first, this bench served as a place of reflection and remembering of Matilda’s life, her children, her descendants, as well as other enslaved African Americans in the area. Did she do anything particularly special? No. But she lived.

She survived. And so did her descendants. And so did a lot of other African Americans.

So we commemorate and we remember this. The bench also recognizes the bravery, ingenuity, resourcefulness, fortitude, and determination of African American people yearning to be free in this country. But why a bench? Well, we’ve heard some reasons today, but really why not? You know, we Americans, we love to memorialize things.

And you see it all over this country. But it seems that we love to memorialize things that we’re proud of, and we will memorialize things that happened to us. It’s a little bit more difficult to memorialize things that we’ve done to each other.

That’s where the rub comes. That’s where it becomes harder. But it’s important that we commemorate and remember the truth.

Unfortunately, there are people today who don’t want to confront the truth about our past. They don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. They don’t want to feel bad.

We’re at a time when folks are trying to rewrite the past, tell us we didn’t see what we saw with our own eyes, and putting gag orders on the teacher who dared to teach the truth. African Americans are constantly told to stand by and to accept the rewriting, the retelling, and the absolute watering down of our history. But this is also American history.

And this disinformation, this disinformation movement, cheapens American history. It diminishes the greatness of a nation that didn’t just manifest itself in some Disney-like fashion. The truth is, we are not here because of some great collection of the Founding Fathers alone.

In theory, this country was founded on liberty, and at the time, nobody had ever heard of it. Such a thing, it was a great experiment. The Founding Fathers are geniuses for coming up with this.

But according to our own founders, Native Americans were savages, women, well, we weren’t supposed to know, and Blacks were fractions of human beings. The original sin of slavery is enshrined in our history and our founding documents. We are a nation that has had to overcome hardship, pain, and struggle.

This is the truth. This is America’s truth, and the story that must be told. We are here today because of a collection of Americans, Black and white, who fought defiantly and consistently to make this nation live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

People cheapen America when they don’t talk about the struggle of slaves, the determination of Black and white abolitionists, and the absolute commitment of Quakers to change the laws in this country. We cheapen America when we don’t talk about the greatest infrastructure system that America has never ever known, the Underground Railroad. We cheapen America when we allow others to retell our stories in ways that intentionally disinform, hide, deny, and diminish the truth.

America’s story is best told when the painful, shameful, ugliest parts are acknowledged, while highlighting subsequent generations that work to refashion the more perfect union. President Abraham Lincoln said that giving freedom to the slaves reassured freedom is free. Well, we know today this isn’t necessarily true.

Freedom is never free, and yes, it can be taken from you. Freedom can never be taken for granted. Each generation must fight to maintain freedom.

When you take your freedom for granted, you wake up one day and you notice one of your freedoms is gone. When you wake up the next day, it’s a little more gone. And you keep going and going and going until guess what? We have no freedom left.

So we must commemorate our past, we must remember the pain, and we must remember the truth. We remember the sacrifice of countless others in our struggle and the shoulders we all stand on. We didn’t get this far by ourselves.

So today, we commemorate Matilda’s garden. Why? Because we’re celebrating Matilda’s life and others like her that survive and thrive in spite of. Most of all, we remember that we are not alone.

Just look around you today, and we know that we are not alone. Matilda’s bench reminds us of the importance of remembering the past as we all work together to ensure a better future. Thank you.

Carolyn Denard’s statement

Carolyn Denard, the Founder and Board Chair of the Toni Morrison Society, who was accompanied by Craig Stutman, the Bench by the Road Project Chair, gave the following background on the project:

I’d like to say, first of all, that we are doing the work of the living today. And the work of the living is to remember and to honor. And I’m so glad and so proud to be among the living honoring the ancestors today.

I am Carolyn Denard, founder and board chair of the Toni Morrison Society, and I’m delighted to bring greetings this morning on behalf of the Toni Morrison Society board and its members who are here today. So the Toni Morrison Society members who are here today will stand. And if you’d like to be a member, there’s membership material on the table over there that you can look at.

We are pleased that the Toni Morrison Society is able to be here at this special place in Cobb County, Georgia partnering with the Friends of the Concord Cover Bridge Historic District to honor the memory of the African American community who lived here both during enslavement and freedom. After placing benches at several sites away from Georgia over the last few years, I’m especially pleased to be back in Georgia, in my own backyard as they say, honoring the lives of the formerly enslaved of Cobb County on this eve of the Juneteenth holiday. How appropriate.

I’m joined here today by Dr. Craig Stutman, bench by the road committee project chair. And Craig and I would like to thank the dedicated people who made this bench placement happen. The first of those as you know by now is Patricia Burns, who first contacted the Society about the bench placement and who did the research to answer our follow up questions and persevered until this bench placement was approved.

Thank you, Ms. Burns. You have been our mirror into the meaning of this bench placement in the Covered Bridge Historic District and we have also been committed to making it happen largely because of your persistence and commitment to honoring the Ruff family.

But Ms. Burns was not alone.

She had a team of board members and state legislators and I’m finding out the whole Panhellenic Council who supported her in this cause. So I would like to thank, first of all, Dr. Jackie McMorris, who is the manager of Cobb County. I would like to thank in her absence, District 4 Commissioner Monique Sheffield and District 39 State Representative Terry Cummins who you just heard gives a really meaningful and moving tribute this morning to this entire moment here that we are celebrating.

I would also like to thank board members Angelia Pressley and Dave Mahloy for planning such a beautiful program and making sure that we were aware of all the details. And I’d like to thank the Park Service, the trail keepers, the security and traffic, and everyone. It takes a village to put these kinds of things on.

And everyone who was a part of planning this event. And finally, I would like to thank this wonderful crowd for coming today to be part of the sacred … renewal, not just of the schools and churches and burial sites that we have also honored in Georgia, and train posts that we have also honored in Georgia, but the people, the families, the men, women, and children who were enslaved in Cobb County and who after freedom continued to make it their home. It is indeed a momentous occasion and the Tony Morrison Society is honored to partner with the Friends of the Concord Covered Ridge Historic District in this effort.

Craig and I would now like to take a few minutes to tell you about the Bench by the Road Project. The Bench by the Road Project is a memorial history and community outreach initiative of the Tony Morrison Society. The project was launched on February 18, 2006 on the occasion of Tony Morrison’s 75th birthday.

The name, Bench by the Road, was taken from Morrison’s remarks in a 1989 interview with World Magazine where Ms. Morrison spoke of the absences of historical markers that help remember the lives of the Africans who were enslaved and how her fifth novel, Beloved, served that symbolic role. And this is what she said, “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’s 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, she said, the book had to. Because the Tony Morrison Society wanted to be a place where scholars and readers could, through their engagement with Morrison’s novels, remember not only slavery but also many of the forgotten moments in African American history, the Society chose when it was founded in 1993 a bench by the road as its organizational model. The bench by the road project extends the Society’s mission and while there have been several notable African American museums built in American cities when Morrison wrote these words in the mid-80s, the goal of the bench by the road project now is to create an outdoor museum, what we like to call a global circle of remembrance that will mark important moments, individual sites in African American history and in the history of the people of African descent throughout the African diaspora.

Stutman then outlined the locations of the 33 previous benches, which included locations in the U.S., the Carribean, and Europe, and said, “Today, the Toni Morrison Society is pleased to place its 34th bench in honor of the memory of both the enslaved and free African American communities of Cobb County, Georgia, and in particular, Matilda Ruff and her children, Calvin, Zeida, and Rhoda, who after emancipation continued to live on the lot called Ruff’s Mill, located in what is now known as the Covered Bridge Historic District.”

The crowd then moved to the bench which was covered in cloth. After Angelia Pressley read the inscription, members of Cobb PARKS, Friends of the Concord Covered Bridge Historic District, the Toni Morrison Society, and the Cobb Hellenic Council lifted the four corners of the cloth, unveiling the bench.