Last February, just when vaccines were rolling out, and Zoom social life was the only normal, I joined the Quilting a Beloved Community event at the Forest Park Library, a partnership with the Historical Society of Forest Park, Forest Park Against Racism, Juneteenth Committee, and one of the Black History programs offered that year.
Quilter Rachel Wallis, who subbed in for Dr. Melissa Blount, led an incredible program about the history of dyeing, quilting and using textiles to express voices and stories from Black American history. Enslaved Black women became adept at quilt-making, spinning, weaving and sewing. She told of the women of Gees Bend, the Freedom Quilting Bee, and Bisa Butler. The history of textiles and slavery, reconstruction and the relationship between racial and economic justice are closely entwined.
Not limited to the past, Wallis shared contemporary projects, including working with incarcerated students from the Ohio Reformatory for Women, where a small group of people serving sentences there, who are not allowed access to needles, are learning basic quilting skills and design, and are able to process relationships with loved ones they cannot be with through textile art. With a team of quilting partners from outside of the prison, their creations and designs are sent to their children, family or to sell for income.
In addition, she has led peace sewing circles to memorialize people killed in police custody, gang violence, and unexpected tragedies while encouraging radical empathy, no matter the circumstances. Memorialization through quilting enables a mourner to honor, reflect on and express feelings about the loss of life.
Sewing, the simple act of taking needle and thread through a piece of material, has been the by-product of domestic labor through time and tells stories of those who are often unheard, undercompensated, and invisible. The simplicity of sewing can be meditative and an expressive means of resistance, celebration, and preserving community memory.
Forest Park is about to begin making its second community quilt. The first one, from last year’s collaboration with the Rachel Wallis lecture, is currently on display at the library. Participants are provided one quilt square, a needle, and thread to reflect, create and contribute to the quilt. I am unabashedly inviting everyone who might be interested to join us in making a community quilt, no matter what your skill level.
This Sunday, Feb. 20, with artist and researcher Dr. Sharbreon Plummer leading the opening lecture, “To the Women Who Shaped Us: Memory and Storytelling through Textile Arts,” we will start this year’s quilt journey. This free, remote program is available by registering through the Forest Park Public Library. Currently there are still 24 spaces available (of 44) and registered participants can pick up a blank quilt square, needle, and thread from the library. I look forward to meeting you there.