Friday, February 24, 2023

Freedom Quilts & The Civil Rights Era


Freedom Quilt by Jessie Bell Williams Telfair (1913-1986)

 Georgian Jessie Telfair made at least four versions of this dramatic narrative quilt before her death in 1986. One recently sold at a Brunk Auction for $80,000.

The other three (all quite similar) are in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, Atlanta's High Museum of Art and New York's American Folk Art Museum.

The fan of quilt patterns recognizes her source, a popular pieced alphabet published by St. Louis's Ladies Art Company pattern business in the early 20th century.

Page with the letters from their 1928 catalog
One could order color picture cards, a pattern---
or as many did, just use the diagrams to draw your own.

Notice Jessie used the pictured setting of strips with squares in the corners. Dates attributed for the four quilts range from circa 1975 (NMAAH) to 1983 (American Folk Art Museum.) Jessie, known as Sis, was a native of Terrell County, Georgia, spending her life in the area of Parrott.

Parrott in southwest Georgia

In the early 1960s Jessie had turned 50, was married to S. David Telfair with two
grown daughters. She was a cook at the local "colored school," the Helen Gurr Elementary School.

1940 Census when Betty Lou & Sherry Jean were children.

Parrott in the 1970s

As you may recall--- if you lived through the 1960s---times changed. Decades of white supremacy rule in the former Confederate states was challenged by "outside agitators," young people who aimed to change the Southern power structure that oppressed the Black population.

At right a representative of the Southwest Georgia Project for
Community Education talks to a family about registering to vote.
The lady of the house is working on a quilt.

"Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin' "
Bob Dylan, 1964

Jessie and David Telfair were inspired to register. The white leaders of Terrell County had them fired from their jobs. This political tactic was not unique to Terrell County. Accounts of Alabama's Gees Bend community tell the same tale. 

Library of Congress
The school in Gees Bend, Alabama, late 1930s.

Quiltmaker Annie Mae Young recalled Martin Luther King's visit to Wilcox County, Alabama in 1965 and how she was inspired to exercise her rights. Gees Bend residents were dependent on a ferry to access jobs and local government. Sherriff Lummie Jenkins ordered the ferry closed. 

Percy Columbus "Lummie" Jenkins (1901-1978)
 "We didn't close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black."

One response to job losses was opening crafts co-operatives such
as the Gees Bend quiltmaking enterprise, still in business today.

The Freedom Quilting Bee was another Alabama crafts cooperative
that produced quilts.

Representative of Mississippi's Liberty House co-op at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 
According to the copy about the four quilts Jessie was inspired to work out her grief and anger at losing her job with a freedom quilt, suggested by some students from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC,) a group active in the South in the 1960s. One wonders who had a copy of the Ladies Art Company catalog with its page of alphabet letters and when Jessie began this series.

Library of Congress
The first (?) Freedom Quilt pictured in
Folklife Center News in April, 1978 traveled in an exhibit
Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1770-1976.
It must have been finished before 1976.

Why did Jessie make four quilts? Perhaps she was selling them through a co-op. Looking for such an arts organization in Terrell County though turns up few leads.

The 1998 revision of the Department of Agriculture's index to co-ops lists three in Georgia. The whole topic of these crafts co-operatives on quiltmaking in the last half of the 20th century is a topic worthy of someone's dissertation.

Civil Rights Movement Archive
Duke University

In a letter to SNCC's leader James Forman, Philadelphian Joyce Barrett described a plan for "Small Business Ventures" like the "quiltmaking in Dawson, Georgia or the sewing company in Selma."

1963, Macon Telegraph

 Judith Alexander (1931-2004)
See her papers at the Kenan Research Center at
The Atlanta History Center

Jessie Telfair's motivation for piecing all those letters may have been her relationship with Atlanta gallery owner Judith Alexander. Judith was Atlanta born, a student at the Barnes Foundation and of painter Hans Hoffman. She operated an Atlanta gallery devoted to works of, shall we say, establishment artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline in the years 1959 through 1965. In 1976 she opened another gallery. The Alexander Gallery sold  pieces by what might be called Georgia folk artists or outsider artists.

Two of the four Freedom Quilts in Museum Collections were donated by Judith Alexander before her 2004 death. 

You may note that times began to change in the 1960s but we are still fighting that fight.
"The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin' "

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams Rocks Haiku by Susan Shie 
Made for a 2021 SAQA auction

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for giving us the context surrounding this iconic Freedom quilt!