The Dallas Examiner
“We’re trying to encompass something a little bit different for Black History Month,” explained Courtney Pickens, student development and leadership coordinator for Eastfield College in Mesquite, as she described her concept of “A Piece of My Soul: Traditions of African American Quilts,” currently on display at the campus.
The assortment of textiles hanging on the wall of the college’s library is intended to underscore the family history of the college staff as well as link the Black community and the larger, more diverse community, she explained.
“I was wondering what kind of stories would these quilts tell if I opened the opportunity up for faculty, staff and administration to share that?” she said in contemplation.
The development coordinator admitted the idea was well received and a steady trickle of participants eventually joined in.
“Towards the end people were like, ‘I really do want to tell my story,’” she revealed. “‘I appreciate the opportunity to get that chance to tell my family’s story.’”
One quilt belonging to Dr. Kendra Wallis features the signatures of the seamstresses who stitched the material together embroidered onto the fabric. The quilt was a wedding gift to her mother.
A quilt owned by Professor Danita Bradshaw-Ward was created by the instructor’s grandmother. It was the last quilt her grandmother ever completed.
Pickens pointed out that while certain quilts came from Black faculty members, that was not true of all of them – a couple of the pieces were in fact created by Amish quilters. She asserted that the mix of cultures represented in the display underscored the larger purpose of Black American History Month; it was something for all Americans to learn from and appreciate.
“I thought at first, of course, it’s African American History Month, but why just limit that to African American faculty and staff? To me, that’s not the goal of it,” she voiced. “The goal is to highlight the things, the history, but then move towards a bigger purpose of sharing each other.”
She continued by invoking a textile metaphor.
“… Weaving that tapestry that we are connected through different things. We had a very diverse reception of the quilts, so we did have a lot of staff from different backgrounds … all over the world,” she said. “It was a celebration and a monument but it was not just that. It was connecting the staff members together.”
The history of quilting and Black Americana can be traced to Africa where men did much of the weaving, according to the online Southern Quilting project from the University of Virginia.
“Yet when slaves were brought to the United States their work was divided according to Western patriarchal standards and women took over the tradition,” the report discloses.
The website Quilting in America indicates that the skill found in the quilts of that period speaks of a resourcefulness within those individuals who crafted them.
“Like the pioneer quilters, early African American quilters were quite resourceful in finding and using ‘throw away’ or discarded goods to use in their quilts,” the website states.
“In addition to scraps from cloth used to make their clothes, slave quilters made good use of gunny, feed, flour, tobacco, and sugar sacks. The inner layer of quilts could be filled with old blankets, worn clothes that could no longer be mended, or bits and pieces of wool or raw cotton.”
Pickens stated that quilts remain an important cultural form of artistry and history even in the present.
“The significance behind having the community, the students, and all of us kind of looking at this is to make sure that it’s important that our families’ histories are preserved.”
It was especially true for an American population who have relatively little recorded genealogical history to draw from, she affirmed.
“Whether it’s through oral tradition or whether it’s through something like a quilt, it’s very important that our children and our children’s children know who we are,” she declared.
“If they see these exhibits you can see the personalities of the people who sewed these, but also they wanted – whoever sewed it – wanted to reflect who that person was. This is kind of cliché but it’s the truth. In the age [when] we’re a little less connected, we’re more disconnected, this can help, I believe, tie into the fact that we need to connect to our families and to our communities through something.”
The exhibit began Feb. 8 and will run until Friday. The campus library is located in building L-200, at 3737 Motley Drive in Mesquite. It is open Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.