Saturday, May 16, 2020

Josie Covington & Her Quilt In Context

Sampler of patterns attributed to Josie Covington (1876-1909)
 Triune, Williamson County, Tennessee. 80" x 81"

This remarkable quilt has been published several times over the last fifty years. It's in the collection of of Richard H. and Kathleen L. Hulan; Richard's biography indicates he is an "independent scholar of American folk arts."

The Hulans seem to have bought the quilt from Josie's daughter Mary Eunice Covington Jones (1892-1984), whom they interviewed in 1978.

Many of the more formal blocks like the string star
were published in the pattern literature after 1890.

Looking at it today we might call it a pattern quilt, a combination of fabric blocks collected and saved to be used as patterns for future patchwork (perhaps the blocks were unstitched so shapes could be traced).

The Ladies's Art Company sold hundreds of block designs.

We can also see it as a sampler of designs popular in the early 20th century as the commercial network of quilt pattern publishers encouraged variety and novelty.

Most of the discussion of Josie's quilt, however, interprets it through the idea that African-Americans like Josie Covington were guided by intrinsic African design concepts, a theory advocated by Jon Vlach of Yale University's Art History Department. In the 2007 book Sacred and Profane: Voice and Vision in Southern Self-taught Art, Carol Crown & Charles Russell quote Vlach.
"Covington had started with the Anglo-American framework of a central medallion quilt but applied a characteristically African American improvisatory approach ...[demonstrating] what Vlach describes as 'two competing worldviews inclining alternately toward order and variation.' "
Quite a few cottons have black backgrounds, indicating a date
after 1890, consistent with Josie's 33 years of life.

Triune is 30 miles south of Nashville

Being a poor African-American woman in late 19th-century Tennessee, daughter of people who were probably once slaves, Josie Covington herself is rather elusive. 

We trace her best through her children who date from 1891 to 1899. Searcy, born in 1894, lived a long life in Williamson County, Tennessee, dying in 1984 at about 90 years old. From his gravesite we learn her other children's names: Risdon, Mary, Rosana and Willie Lee.
Searcy's gravesite:

The 1900 census lists Josie, born in 1876, living with her mother Bettie Covington (1854-1926). Josie is described as widowed, although she was probably never formally married. A boy named Dresden, born in 1891, is probably Risdon, her eldest. Four other children born every other year in the 1890s are also living with their mother and grandmother. Searcy is listed as Sissie, a girl.

The best evidence of Josie Covington is her death certificate, which says she died on April 3, 1909, at about 40 years old of consumption, tuberculosis. She's described as single and a servant.

Her children seem to have escaped the curse of that disease, living well into our times. Her youngest Willie Lee died in 1984. They were young when their mother died. Bettie, their grandmother, probably raised them.

See Bettie's grave site:

Among familiar patchwork blocks a foot? and a scissors.

When the Hulans interviewed Josie's daughter she mentioned that the woman who employed Josie as a domestic servant may have contributed to the quilt, providing some of the pattern blocks and assisting in the quilt's construction.

They gave her name as Alice Page Pettus (1855-1905). This woman is more elusive than Josie. Perhaps Mary Covington Jones remembered the name wrong. Many Pettuses have lived in Williamson County.  Pettuses and their relations the white Covingtons were probably the pre-Civil War slaveholding family from whom Josie's family got their last name.

Quilts of Tennessee

The Covington quilt echoes another Tennessee sampler or pattern quilt top, this one attributed to Iora Pool Perrigo, who lived in Rugby, Tennessee.

Iora's is larger and has more patterns, but is similar in fabrics, the combination of commercial pieced patterns and unique applique and the composition featuring a central focus with smaller, busier designs at the edges.

Iora Philo Pool Perrigo(1855-1903)
Iora's home of Rugby is over 150 miles east of Triune.
She was probably born in Michigan.

Looking at these quilts in the context of their time---about 1900---we see them as a reaction to an abundance of pattern. Race and ethnic heritage (and being from Tennessee) had nothing to do with the look. The black Josie and white Iora may have been over-achievers in collecting patchwork to add but their quilts are unique only in the variety and size of the pieces.

Quilt from Karen Biedler Alexander's Virginia family.

Perhaps Mennonite

Most of the examples we known nothing about.

Some contain only blocks of various sizes. Others include fragments in strips.

Some are Southern

Nancy Sears, Rusk County, Texas

Some Northern
Collection Genessee County Museum, New York

And here is one we'd like to know a lot more about.

From a Georgia auction 
No information but it has much in common with Josie Covington's...

Georgia center

Josie's center

Josie's scissors

The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns a quilt attributed to Marie Hensley (ca 1870-1932) of McDowell County, North Carolina with a similar Make-do look. The fabrics, however, look later, perhaps from the 1920s or after. Marie, of African-American heritage, did not use pattern blocks so much as variations on string quilts, piecing strips as she found them.

Her appliqued imagery is more mystical, here an all seeing eye, perhaps,
and an hour glass.

Marie Hensley's quilts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

Josie Covington's mother's grave


  1. Amazing quilts all! But Marie Hensley's is my favorite--the colors and block choices just call my name...thanks for sharing these wonderful quilts ~ ~ ~ waving from afar julierose

  2. Wow! I hope you do find out more about that Georgia quilt. Amazingly similar.

  3. What a fascinating series of quilts! You could spend hours examining them! They do remind me of the very current Moda Blockhead Series that have a variety of blocks from many designers.

  4. When I see quilts like this I wonder if the maker made the blocks gradually just to try patterns out, and when they piled up put them together into a quilt simply not to waste them.

  5. Amazing quilts! Thanks for the discussion and comparisons.

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