The Toni Morrison Society was founded May 28, 1993, at the annual meeting of the American Literature Association in Baltimore, Maryland. At the invitation of Carolyn Denard, then an Associate Professor of English at Georgia State University, twenty-six scholars and supporters of Morrison's work met in Baltimore to establish the Toni Morrison Society as an official member of the coalition of American author societies that comprise the American Literature Association. With its founding, the Toni Morrison Society became the 41st author society of the Association and the fourth dedicated to an African American author.
Five months after the founding of the Society, Toni Morrison won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. With the increased interest in Morrison's works after she won the Nobel Prize, the Society quickly grew from a small body of devoted Morrison scholars in the United States to an international literary society of more than 700 members, whose home countries include Japan, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, France, England, Germany, China, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Australia. The Advisory Board is made up of leading individuals in the academic, art, business, and lay communities who support and wish to enhance the mission of the Society. In 1995, the Society was incorporated and chartered in the state of Georgia. In 1997, the Society became a registered, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.
The Society's mission is "to initiate, sponsor, and encourage critical dialogue, scholarly publications, conferences, and projects devoted to the study of the works of Toni Morrison". Because of Morrison's broad intellectual and artistic interests, the programming initiatives of the Society have, over the years, expanded beyond the study of her novels to a include the political, cultural, and historical implications of her works in writing, teaching, and arts stewardship.
In 1998, the Toni Morrison Society established the Biennial Conference series to provide a forum for scholars and readers from around the world to focus on a single theme in Morrison's writings and at a site that had significance in her life or in her novels. The interdisciplinary conferences-including academic papers, musical performances, art exhibits, and historical tours-have attracted a broad spectrum of scholars and readers and have allowed the Society to showcase the impact of Morrison's work beyond the classroom. The First Biennial Conference ("Toni Morrison and the American South") was held in Atlanta, Georgia, the first home of the Toni Morrison Society and home state of Morrison's father who migrated from Cartersville, Georgia, to Lorain, Ohio, in the early 1900s. The Second Biennial ("Toni Morrison and the Meanings of Home") was held in Lorain, Ohio, where Morrison was born and raised and attended public school before leaving for Howard University in 1949. The Third Biennial Conference ("Toni Morrison and the Politics of Learning") was held at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where Morrison finished her undergraduate work in 1953 and taught from 1958 to 1960. During the Third Biennial Conference, the Toni Morrison Society also celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Society and the 10th Anniversary of Toni Morrison winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Fourth Biennial Conference ("Toni Morrison and Sites of Memory") was held in Cincinnati, Ohio, and at Northern Kentucky University. The conference celebrated important sites of slavery and freedom in Morrison's novels and featured the Cincinnati premiere of the opera, Margaret Garner, libretto by Toni Morrison and music composed by Richard Danielpour. The Fifth Biennial Conference of the Toni Morrison Society ("Toni Morrison and Modernism") was held in Charleston, South Carolina in July 2008 at the College of Charleston and focused on diasporic notions of modernism in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the ban on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. At the Fifth Biennial Conference the Society placed its first Bench by the Road on Sullivan's Island on the coast of South Carolina at the port where 40% of Africans who came to North America entered. The Sixth Biennial Conference ( "Toni Morrison and Circuits of the Imagination") was held in Paris France in November 2010 and focused on impact of Morrison's work on scholars and readers in the African Diaspora and on the influence of Paris as a site of Black expatriatism on Morrison's work. The Seventh Biennial Conference ("Toni Morrison and her Role as Editor") was held in July 2016 in New York City and focused on Morrison work and her generative impact as an editor. Authors whose works that she had edited while a senior editor at Random House including Angela Davis, John McCluskey, and other younger, writers including Kiese Laymon, Tayari Jones, Roxanne Gay, and Edwidge Danticat who were influenced by Morrison, were featured panelists.
In September of 2002, the Society launched its first national service initiative with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Conceived in two parts, the "Language Matters" Service Initiative focuses on secondary school teachers and on young readers. Beginning at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C., the Society sponsored a series of year-long workshops with teachers to supplement their strategies for teaching Morrison's novels to high school students. The Young Readers' Circle, launched in 2003 will be a national effort to improve critical reading literacy among youth ages 9-13. In the summer of 2005, the Language Matters Initiative, with a second grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, sponsored a two-week-long workshop for high school teachers at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky.
In 2006, in honor of Toni Morrison's 75th birthday, the Society launched what would become its signature community outreach initiative called "The Bench by the Road Project." The goal of the Bench by the Road Project would be to address Morrison's observation in a 1989 interview that there were no places, no sites where we could remember those who survived the journey of the Middle Passage and those who did not by placing steel benches at sites throughout the US and abroad at unmarked sites, that would commemorate individuals, sites, and events that were representative of the resiliency and achievements of those who were enslaved and their descendants. To date, Society has placed 32 Benches throughout the US and abroad.
In addition to the public programming of the Biennial Conference Series, the Society sponsors two panels annually at the American Literature Association Meeting, Morrison Birthday celebrations and symposia, the annual Toni Morrison Society Lecture, the biennial Toni Morrison Society Book Prize, and special projects devoted the study of Toni Morrison's work by lay and scholarly audiences.
Of the over 100 author societies that now make up the American Literature Association, the Toni Morrison Society has assumed a preeminent place in the Association and in the academy. Its extensive membership, its public and scholarly programming, and its ability to attract major grants and corporate funding have allowed it to move forward on national and international stages in supporting the teaching, reading, and critical examination of the import of the works of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison.