A timeline of African American history, told through quilts

Pieces in the Bruce Museum show cover cultural milestones and important figures, from the early Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells to 1967 Supreme Court case about interracial marriage

by Victoria Stapley-Brown  |  23 February 2016
A timeline of African American history, told through quilts
Barbara McCraw's The Loving Quilt (2012) is based on the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving vs State of Virginia, which struck down a state law forbidding interracial marriages. All images: courtesy of WCQN
And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations, a travelling exhibition of quilts currently on show at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, is a “historical timeline… to talk about the history of the presence of African Americans in [the United States]”, says its curator, the artist and historian Carolyn Mazloomi. “Everybody’s familiar with quilts, so it’s an easy way to talk about and address difficult subject matter.” It’s also a relevant medium: quilting, particularly when slaves were forbidden to read and write, “was a method of communication,” Mazloomi explains “it was a method of empowering people with a voice through cloth”.

For the show, Mazloomi asked 100 members of the 1,500-strong Women of Color Quilters Network, which she founded around 30 years ago, to choose a year in nearly four centuries of African American history to commemorate with a quilt. Forty of these quilts—which use a variety of techniques, including appliqué, painting, photo-transfer and beading—are on display in the Bruce museum leg of the tour.

  • 1619: Carolyn Crump, 20 and Odd (2012). In 1619, the first African slaves arrived in what is now the United States, in present-day Hampton, Virginia
  • 1847: Carol Beck, Ebony and Ivory (2010). “My quilt represents the many elephants and estimated 2.5 million African Slaves who died because of greed, by two Connecticut Companies’ need for elephant tusks to make ivory piano and organ keys,” Beck says in her artists’ statement
  • 1918: Dawn Williams Boyd, La Croix de Guerre (2010). Commemorates the 369th Infantry Regiment, or the Harlem Hellfighters, in World War I, who were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. “During the war, no Negro soldier received the US Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for military heroism.”
  • 1926: Sherise Marie Wright, Far Into the Night: The Weary Blues (2012). “The inspiration behind my quilt is based on the last stanza of Langston Hughes’, The Weary Blues, published in 1926…The Weary Blues is about self-expression and how African Americans fought for the privilege to live out their dreams.”
  • 1936: Julius Bremer, In Memory of Jesse (2012). Photo by Chas. E. and Mary Martin.
    “His success [winning four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics] was bittersweet for he did much in proving the superiority of the United States in Germany but was still faced with prejudices on his return home from the Olympics.”
  • 1967: Barbara McCraw, The Loving Quilt (2012). On the Supreme Court case that struck down Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which made interracial marriage illegal, brought by the interracial married couple Richard and Mildred Loving. “Even when the subject matter is difficult, I want my quilts to be as beautiful as I can make them. For this piece, I envisioned a wedding bower of flowers with two simple hands in the center,” McCraw, who herself is in an interracial marriage, says.
  • 1994: Cleota Proctor Wilbekin, The Unbalanced Scales of Justice (2012). “The white buttons symbolize our tears, the red buttons symbolize our blood and fears, and the black buttons our strengths,” Wilbekin, an attorney and the oldest member of the WCQN, says in her statement.
  • 2005: Viola Burly Leak, Katrina Wreckage and Tears...And Still We Rise (2012). “The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought issues of race discrimination and black poverty to the forefront of the political debate.”
Some of the pieces celebrate important milestones, like the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving vs State of Virginia, which struck down a state law forbidding interracial marriages, and historical figures like the anti-lynching journalist and early Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells, who was born a slave. Others bear witness to violence, injustice and hardship, including from events in the recent past, such as Hurricane Katrina.

The presentation ends with Visionaries of Our Freedom (2012), a quilt by Sherry Whetsone-McCall that Mazloomi calls “an anniversary celebration”, anticipating 2019, which will mark the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans in the United States. Looking through the history was often difficult, Mazloomi says, who lived through the Civil Rights Era, but it is also “a celebration of joy… when you stand back and look at all the contributions… through all the ups and downs—and we’re still here. We’re still here, and still we rise.”

The exhibition, which was organised by the Women of Color Quilters Network in partnership with the Cincinnati Museum Center and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, will be at the Bruce Museum through 24 April. The next scheduled stop for the show is the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia, where it runs from 19 September to 1 January 2017.

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