Quilting Sisters: African-American Quiltimaking in Michigan

Marsha MacDowell. January 13, 2000
All rights reserved, Michigan State University Museum
Quilting Sisters: African-American Quilting in Michigan
Michigan State University Museum
January 13 - February 13, 2000

The history and culture of any given group can be reflected in the production and use of their material culture. With few exceptions, quiltmaking traditions within the African-American community have been historically overlooked in public and scholarly recognition. In the last five years, however, African-American quilts, quilters, and quilting traditions have begun to receive long overdue attention and have been the subject of several exhibitions and studies.

Research on African-American Quiltmaking in Michigan

In 1983, as part of the Michigan Quilt Project, the staff of the Michigan Traditional Arts Program at the Michigan State University Museum began to systematically collect information on African-American quiltimaking in the state. A series of African-American Community Quilt Discovery Days were held during 1986 in communities of predominantly black populations or historically-important black settlements, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Lansing, and Idlewild, to encourage quilters and quilt owners to share their quilts and their stories. These community documentation efforts immediately elicited much new information. At the first event, held in Muskegon, the work of more than thirty quilters was recorded. Subsequently, Michigan State University Museum staff, graduate students, contracted researchers, and community scholars have photographed African-American quilts and quilting activities, reviewed primary and secondary archival and library sources, and interviewed more than fifty African-American quilters.

About the Exhibit

This exhibition presents a sampling of quilts that exemplifies the richness and diversity of African-American quiltmaking traditions found in the state. This exhibit explores the ways in which some quiltmakers reflect distinctly African-American experiences. It also demonstrates the wide range of styles, techniques, and traditions that are found among African-Americans in Michigan.

The Couples Quilt

Historical African-American Quilts in Michigan

Although there are few known extant examples of historical quilts and little published information on quiltmaking amount early African-American settlers in Michigan, oral tradition firmly established that quiltmaking has been a widespread activity for many years. One of the few published references to the historical presence of quilts in African-American families in Michigan appeared in the Michigan Manual of Freedom's Progress. The publication accompanied the Michigan Exhibit of Freemen's Progress at the National Half-Century Exposition at Chicago, Illinois, held to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation. At least two quilts, one listed as "heir loom, age 60 yrs," were included among nearly two hundred items on exhibit.

One rare nineteenth-century extant quilt with strong Michigan ties is "The Couples Quilt," now owned by collectors in Arizona. According to oral tradition, the quilt was begun by Mary Jane Batson who had been a slave on the Batson plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia. She later gave the pieces to her granddaughter, Mariah Chapman, who set them together and quilted the top. In 1922 Chapman gave the quilt to her niece Malinda Spain who lived in Detroit. Spain, in turn, gave the quilt to William Kern, a school principal, in appreciation for helping to feed and clothe her children during the Great Depression.


Viney Crawford (b. 1912)
Idlewild, Lake County, Michigan
Collection of Michigan State University Museum, acc.#6520.1

Quilts as Records of Migration
African-American quilts serve as visual records of patterns of migration and settlement. Research has shown that certain quilt patterns, pattern names, color palettes, and construction techniques used by African-American quilters in Michigan are linked to those used by African-American quilters in southern states. Some scholars suggest that the tradition of strip and string quilting among African-American quilters, can in turn, be traced to the textile traditions of their forebears in West Africa.


Oak Leaf
Artist unknown
ca. 1850
Probably Alabama.
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc.#6646.


Old Settlers' Quilt
Deonna Todd Green (b. 1948) and Ione Todd (b. 1927)
Remus, Mecosta County, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc.#7101.1


Crow Foot in the Mud
Sina R. Phillips (b. 1901)
Muskegon, Muskegon County, Michigan
Collection of Michigan State University Museum, acc. #6788.

Quilts as Visual Records of History
Some types of quilts provide a direct source of historical information. Pictorial quilts provide visual depictions of events, places, and people while friendship, album, and signature quilts provide written evidence of the membership and relationships of certain groups of individuals at particular points of history. Like photographs, autograph albums, diaries, and other tools for recording history, these quilts provide insight into the experience of African-Americans in Michigan.


Double Wedding Ring
Zelma Dorris (b. 1943)
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc. 7425.1

Quiltmaking Traditions
As in any community of quilters, there are a variety of common quiltmaking traditions found in the African-American community. These include the recycling of fabrics from both home and workplace, using quilting to supplement household income, and using quilts as a means to raise funds for local church, community, club activities, or such national causes as the United Negro College Fund.


Todd Family Quilt
Deonna Todd Green (b. 1948) and Ione Todd (b. 1927)
Remus, Mecosta County, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc. #7005.1


I Am
Lula Williams
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc.#7422.1

Quilts and African-American Identity
The use of certain motifs, colors, materials, and construction techniques in quiltmaking can underscore an artist's African-American identity. Some quilters choose to incorporate African textiles or fashion their quilts in colors linked to African or African-American social or political organizations.


Stove Eye
Mary Atkins
Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, Michigan
Collection of Michigan State University Museum, acc. #7132.1


Blue Jean Pockets
Essie Lee Robinson (b. 1918)
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc. #7536.1

Quilts and Storytelling
As families have brought quilts to Michigan from other states or countries they have brought with them stories of the families and communities left behind. Many African-American quilts in Michigan are made of scraps of clothes worn by family members or are given as gifts on such special occassions as births, weddings, anniversaries, and graduations. Quilts serve as visual reminders of those important events in the retelling of stories associated with those events.


Underground Railroad or Grandmother's Fan Variation
Myla Perkins (b.1939)
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc. #7421.1


Mary Williams (1893-1979)
Knoxville, Tennessee
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc. #7535.1

Quilting as Social Activity
Quilting has traditionally served as an opportunity for social interaction and the popularity of African-American quilting groups has increased in recent years. From The Quilting Six of Ecorse to the African-American Quilting Club of Flint to the especially strong group headquartered at the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, quilting affords an important opportunity to share productive time with friends in churches, homes, and recreational and senior centers around the state.


Appropriateness of Yellow
by Carole Harris (b. 1948) piecer/designer, Laura Rodin, quilter
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc. #7423.1


Lethonee Jones (b. 1938)
Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc. #1996:109.1


Todd or Pyramid
Elaine Yancy Hollis (b. 1936)
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan
Collection of the Michigan State University Museum, acc. #7424.1

Individual Expression: Quilter as Artist
Although all quiltmaking involves creative decision-making, there are also quiltmakers who consciously strive to use pattern, color, fabric, and craftsmanship to create innovative or unique textiles. These artist/quiltmakers, such as Detroiter Carole Harris or Lethonee Jones of Kalamazoo, participate in such public forums as galleries, exhibits, or fairs where their work is evaluated by art critics or professional quilting judges.

The Michigan Quilt Project

Established in 1984 under the direction of the staff of the Michigan Traditional Arts Program at the Michigan State University Museum, the Michigan Quilt Project was created to systematically research, document, and present information on this important aspect of the state's cultural heritage. In addition to photographs, tape-recorded interviews, and data on more than 5,000 quilts representing the work of over 3,000 quilters, the Michigan State University Museum has received numerous donations of significant Michigan quilts. These collected objects and information have provided the basis for a variety of public education and scholarly research projects. The project has resulted in publications, public educational programs, and interpretive exhibitions at the museum.

The Michigan State University Museum is continuing to seek information on quilts and quiltmakers. Visitors with information or quilts to contact the Michigan Quilt Project at


This exhibition was sponsored by the Museum of African-American History, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Mayor's Office of Idlewild, the Minority Affairs Office of Muskegon Community College, and the Cooperative Extension Services offices in Kent, Muskegon, Lake, and Ingham counties.

Funding for this project has been provided by grants from the Michigan Council for the Arts, Michigan State All-University Research Initiation Grant Program, Michigan State University Foundation, Greater Lansing Foundation, Michigan State University Black History Celebration Committee, and the Folk Arts Program, National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support was provided by the Michigan State University Offices of the Provost and Vice-President for Research and Graduate Studies and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund. The Michigan Traditional Arts Program is a partnership program with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Exhibit Project Staff

Project Curator: Marsha MacDowell

Project Researchers: Deborah Smith Pollard; Marie Combs; C. Kurt Dewhurst; Wythe Dornan; Ruth D. Fitzgerald; Deborah Grayson; Junius Griffin; Denise Pilato; Maryellen Haines; Catherine Johnson; LuAnne G. Kozma; Yvonne R. Lockwood; Cheryl Lyons-Jenness; Marsha MacDowell; Lynne Swanson; and Peter H. Wehr.

Photographer of quilters (unless otherwise noted):
Mary Whalen

Exhibit Designers: Lynne Swanson, Carole Harris, and Melinda Hamilton

Collections Manager: Lynne Swanson

Curatorial Assitants: Melaine Atkinson, Chantel Cummings, Catherine Johnson, Beth Donaldson, Kate Edgar, Mary Worrall, Sarah Stollack, Pearl Yee Wong, and Jill Crane

Exhibit Technician: Julie Levy-Westin

Signage Production and Layout: Melinda Hamilton and Dustin O'Connor

Advisory Committe Members: Jeffalone Rumph; Derenda Collins; Carole Harris; Anita Marshall; Marie Combs; Ben Miller; Maryellen Haines; and Cheryl Lyons-Jenness

Traveling Exhibit Coordinator: Michele Beltran

An accompanying publication: Marsha MacDoweel, ed. African American Quiltmaking in Michigan. East Lansing, Michigan; Michigan State University Press, 1998.

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