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The Quilting Queens: Responding to Katrina
Louisiana; United States
In response to the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a group of Anglo and African American women volunteered at the Northwest Louisiana Hurricane Relief Center (NLHRC) in Minden, a town in rural north central Louisiana, where many south Louisiana evacuees made temporary homes. Drawn to volunteer by the media’s depiction of the extreme devastation and the lack of governmental preparation and response, these volunteers became immersed in their new disaster-based community. Broadcasts of governmental ineptness on the parts of the Army Corps of Engineers for lack of levee maintenance before the hurricanes and of FEMA for lack of a timely response helped raise the consciousness of volunteers. By the time the center closed three months later, some of these center workers responded again by volunteering to make quilts to raise money for hurricane survivors. From January 2006 through February 2010, these women gathered to make quilts, first for the hurricane survivors and then for community causes. Having heard painful personal narratives from evacuees, these responders had much to discuss in their racially integrated quilting group, where they also shared their own personal narratives. Through this shared responder work, the women bonded in an unusually intense communal experience. The process of quiltmaking, their personal stories, and their commodified quilts function to provide post-crisis therapy, develop interracial solidarity, and empower the women.
Relief Center before stocking. Photo by Susan Roach
The Relief Center Volunteers
Volunteering at the regional hurricane relief center in the immediate wake of the 2005 Louisiana hurricanes provided the communal experience that would spawn the Quilting Queens. The relief center, which housed donated goods for the hurricane evacuees, was the brain-child of Jenny Reynolds and Chris Broussard, who served as its co-directors. Later Broussard was also the originator of the quilting group idea. Broussard details her role in starting the center when the evacuees began to arrive in Minden, and she saw the devastation on television: “I went to my homeland security agent and told him that I wanted to volunteer and didn’t care what it was, but I knew I had to do something. I said, ‘I think I’m a very good organizer and I have a plan, but if you have a plan I’ll follow yours.’” Interestingly, by a fascinating coincidence, Reynolds and Broussard had called within minutes of each other with the same idea. The agent liked their plan for a relief center and put them in charge. According to Broussard their administrative duties were split: Reynolds “handled the out of state donations and general accounting,” while Broussard “handled the local donations, the volunteers, and registering the evacuees” (Email 29 June 2011).
Chris Broussard. Photo by Susan Roach
Broussard explained what she wanted to do for the evacuees: “I saw a great need for evacuees being able to go to a place where they could get everything, not just a bed.” So she made calls and got access to the vacant “old Wal-Mart building” to function as a “resource center.” After putting out some flyers in churches and asking for volunteers, they managed to fill the 50,000 square foot warehouse “in less than a week’s time with all donated goods in the first week of September.” To greet the entering evacuees, they developed a banner that echoed Broussard’s loving, inclusive personality and her wish to bring diverse peoples together: “We had a banner that hung overhead when the evacuees came in, so that they could see. It was the first thing you saw when you came in, ‘Can you feel the love?’ because we sure felt it.” (Broussard, Personal interview).
Can You Feel the Love. Photo by Susan Roach
Mountain of clothes. Photo by Susan Roach
Ethel Parker is in the center. Photo by Susan Roach
The relief center’s volunteer operations were intense for three months. Broussard describes the scene: “[E]vacuees . . . could get everything from food, clothing, dog food, furniture even, appliances, cookware. . . . We nicknamed it Katrina Mart. And it was the Wal-Mart of your dreams because you could come in and shop and not have to pay. There was no checkout.” According to Broussard, their center was one of the first to be established, and it opened the doors for FEMA to set up there immediately in part of the space. She termed it a “sort of a one-stop shop for the evacuees” since FEMA, the unemployment office, and the hospital were all represented there, although the Red Cross didn’t show up until later. Some of the evacuees who stayed on in Minden still talk about the center for its good work. Broussard describes the volunteers and their work ethic: “hundreds of volunteers all coming in at different times: rich, poor, black, white, working side-by-side. And no task was too menial for anybody. And . . . the trucks from Arkansas and Kansas and Colorado, just all over the country, started coming in and unloading” (Personal Interview).
Broussard recounts the demanding hours of the center which was open six or seven days a week: “Our hours were supposed to be 9-5, but we found that we were there from can to can’t. And it was just whenever someone drove up, we opened the doors for them. It didn’t matter what time of day it was. If they needed it, we were there for them.” They developed a slogan “See a need, fill a need.” She explains the uncanny way this worked: “We would almost just make the statement that we needed something, and the next thing you know, it was being filled. . . . I’ve never seen anything like that happen. Never seen people come together and collaborate and cooperate the way that we did with this. And the whole time I kept thinking, ‘Gosh, if our country could be like this, we wouldn’t be in a mess’” (Personal interview).
The generous clothing donations at the center became a problem that led to the creation of a quilting group. Before Thanksgiving, when the center had been open for almost three months, the women realized they would not be able to distribute the “mountain” of donated clothing that had inundated them. They sorted out the best clothes they thought people would wear, sized, and boxed them. Then they shipped clothing south to Baton Rouge and beyond and then distributed clothing and food locally, as Broussard describes: "And we opened the doors to the needy and the churches and we gave away everything we could. We restocked all the pantries of all the churches, and all the united assistance programs, and Hope Youth Ranch, and anybody and everybody that we could think of that could use them, and we were still left with just so many clothes. So I kept thinking; I knew that we were going to have to dismantle the Hurricane Relief Center and had no idea what we were going to do with all these clothes. And I wanted us to be good stewards of our gifts because they were given in love and I knew that people wanted to make sure that they were received that way too" (Personal interview).
Broussard recalls how she asked the other women about her idea of dealing with the clothes: “I actually brought it to the group and asked them what they thought about rendering these clothes into fabrics and stitching quilts and then selling the quilts for the reconstruction effort for Louisiana, and they all said absolutely.” The women chose the fabrics for their quilts by carefully sorting through the mounds of clothing. When selecting fabric, they looked for quality, cotton, and color, but tried to select no clothing that people might want to wear. Then they took some of their selections home to be washed, cut, and organized. With the decision to make quilts, the core volunteers had planned to start making quilts after the relief center closed; however, it took them a couple of months to regroup.
The Formation of the Quilting Queens
Given the adrenaline-packed hours spent dealing with so many distressed people, it is no wonder that when the center closed in December, the women who had volunteered everyday found themselves seriously depressed. Disaster theorists such as Mark Lerner cite this as a common post-crisis result for responders. Lerner and other experts caution about burnout and depression and the need for responder therapy, “particularly for those who are not connected with an established disaster mental services program.” (Lerner and Shelton; Adams 52). According to a FEMA field manual for disaster workers, “Over time, workers may show the physical and psychological effects of work overload and exposure to human suffering. They may experience physical stress symptoms or become increasingly irritable, depressed, over-involved or unproductive, and/or show cognitive effects like difficulty concentrating or making decisions” (DeWolfe 23). The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (3) summarizes standard protocol for disaster responders:
• Stay in touch with your family and friends
• Participate in memorials, rituals, and use of symbols as a way to express feelings
• Pair up with a responder so that you may monitor one another’s stress
Little did the women know that their intuitive response to get together to make quilts and to create and tell their own stories about their work would follow these recommendations and help them work through their own post-crisis syndrome. Members of the relief center’s volunteers reported struggling with depression after the center’s closing. For example, Virginia Watson, who had initially walked into the relief center just to check it out and stayed to work three months, describes her difficulties after the closing: “The couple of months that we were all apart, I think everybody was all in agreement—we were all really down in the dumps, after being so close together for so long. It was a different kind of closeness from just working a job.” Watson, who had been quilting since the early 1980s, said, “The first time we got together [afterwards], everybody cried” (Personal interview). Broussard recounts her own depression during the month after the center closed: “I went into severe depression. I didn’t know what I was going to do. And even though I came up with the idea with the quilts, part of me, I couldn’t pick myself up to want to do it” (Personal interview).
Virginia Watsonby. Photo by Susan Roach
Mary Howell. Photo by Susan Roach
Binding a quilt. Photo by Susan Roach
Since Broussard could not get motivated, Mary Howell, a self-proclaimed “take-charge person” who would lead and teach the quilting group, pushed her to set a date to start the quilting group in January. The group consisted of mostly retired professional women such as Levada Mitchell, a Federal Aviation Administration budget analyst who returned to Minden in 2001 to care for her ailing mother, also a quilter. The group began meeting at Broussard’s business, the Children’s Center, in January every Tuesday and Thursday from 9-2. Broussard describes their initial meeting: "We all got together, and they were just what I needed. Because the minute that they all came together, I just felt so much better again. And the therapy that we went through—and come to find out that a lot of them had been feeling the depression—so we all talked about that,. . . And even though we’d all come together [at the relief center] and the evacuees were the focus, and not that they still weren’t the focus this time (it was kind of a little broader, it was more Louisiana), but we were now able to sit around the table and get to know each other as people, not just volunteers with the common goal of helping. . . and I never laughed so much, cried so much, and had so much fun at any other time in my life than this. And it just did my heart good, and I looked forward to every Tuesday and Thursday" (Personal interview).
The quilting group provided the therapy recommended for alleviating responder stress. First, it brought the workers, now friends, back together regularly to interact and share their feelings and stories. The creative ritual of quilting itself was comforting and therapeutic. First, the handwork provided a hands-on experience that allowed them to work through their post-responder difficulties by occupying their minds and their hands at a time in most of these women’s lives when they had more time to reminisce about the past (Roach 63-98). Second, the quilts they produced would be used to raise money—a fact that allowed them to continue their work for the hurricane survivors. Thus the quilts they made also symbolized their continuing concern and care for the evacuees. As a result, they did not dwell as much on the sad stories they had heard from the evacuees.
Since many members of the group were not already experienced quilters, they had to concentrate to apply their minds and hands in the process. Much of their attention and time also went into learning and negotiating aesthetics (see Ice 166-167). Although many of the women had grown up in quilting families, only two of the women, Mary Howell and Helen Bradfield both white, had extensive quilting experience and were eager to return to it in their retirement, a common phenomenon. The group was joined by a few others with relationships to the relief center volunteers; for example, Bradfield, Broussard’s mother, joined the group without having worked at the relief center. While the group focused more on piecing quilts from their recycled clothes, they also did some group hand quilting although they also sent some quilts out for machine quilting since their goal from January to May was to make 20 quilts.
Up to 24 women at times participated in the quilting for Katrina, although the numbers shifted over the next few years. Mary Fuller describes how they gathered and bonded at the Children’s Center: “We really enjoyed it, and even though when we first met, our personalities may not have been such that we enjoyed being around each other, but we each had the same goal in mind of helping others, so during this time, we did learn to respect and love each other. So it’s nothing that is too big or too little for us to do for each other now” (Fuller, Personal interview). A Shreveport Times newspaper article, “Webster Parish Women Quilt for Therapy, Charity,” reported that the women bonded and discussed anything—“politics, religion, prejudice, weekend trips, childhood pranks.” (Welborn1B). Gloria Thompson summarizes their experience together: “We didn’t know each other. But we cried, we ate together, and we got mad and frustrated. But we came back together, and we’re staying together” (Welborn 1B).
Shreveport Times article.
Marketing the Quilts with Stories
From January-May 2006, the group made 21 quilts at the center. Typically, each woman would piece a top by hand and/or machine with help and direction from others if needed; then the group would quilt it or have it quilted by hand or machine. They made a complicated sales plan for the 21 quilts, including direct sales, a raffle, and an Ebay auction of festival prize-winning quilts. While quilts have long served as fundraising vehicles, the Quilting Queens did not rely as much on the popular quilt raffle or autograph quilt strategies described by Cozart, although they did target four of the quilts for raffles as a means of keeping the public aware of the evacuees’ needs. Broussard explains their strategy: “We also needed a show place for our quilts because we also wanted the public to still be aware that we were still working for the hurricane relief effort and the reconstruction of Louisiana. We didn’t want people to forget about the Katrina evacuees, so we partnered with Cultural Crossroads,” a local volunteer non-profit arts organization headed by Broussard, which funded the group’s quilt show and contest at the 2006 Spring Arts Festival (Personal interview).
Spring Arts Fest Exhibit. Photo by Susan Roach
The Quilting Queens at Spring Arts Fest. Photo by Susan Roach
The Spring Arts Festival provided the Quilting Queens a venue for exhibiting their quilts in their own festival tent and making their group presence at the festival known through stage presentations. Thus the event functioned as their first major marketing arena for their fundraising quilts. Embodying the name Broussard had coined and they had adopted for themselves, the Quilting Queens for the festival wore the inscribed blue aprons and plastic tiaras that Broussard purchased for them. This attire set them apart from other festival participants, promoted their group solidarity, and branded their quilts as special. Another marketing strategy developed by Broussard and the group was to write their “stories” about their quilts and experiences to accompany their quilts on display at the festival.
The festival gave them multiple means for sharing these personal narratives about their quilts and their responder experiences. First, the quilts with their handwritten or printed stories were displayed in a special tent, where they were judged by a “professional quilt judge.” Then Chris Broussard arranged for each member of the group to come up on the festival stage to present her quilt along with its story, which Broussard read, often tearfully, to the festival audience. Most of the narratives tell part of the Katrina story along with each woman’s personal vision in piecing her own quilt tops. Thus the quilts functioned as empowering symbolic vehicles carrying stories about their makers’ emotional experiences as hurricane responders and quiltmakers. The high affect of the narratives also appealed to the charitable side of the viewer and potential quilt buyer and connected them directly to the Katrina experience.
Gloria Thompson and Chris Broussard on stage. Photo by Susan Roach
Gloria Thompson (right). Photo by Susan Roach
A prime example of these narratives accompanied the quilt that won Best of Show in the festival contest, “Flying Geese Quilt,” by Gloria Thompson. On the festival stage, Thompson showed her quilt while Broussard read Thompson’s complex narrative that explains her motivation for choosing to make that particular quilt design and interweaves this with her responder story. The narrative opens with Thompson’s visit with her pastor shortly before Katrina hit, when he had talked to her about the importance of the lead goose in a flock. If the leader goose in a flock is shot, “the others [geese]. . . can go no further until they get another leader.” She goes on, “This quilt is part of Katrina’s and Rita’s healing that I feel that my pastor prepared me for.”
Her story continues and explains her spiritual connection to the making of her quilt: "This is the way it started with Katrina and Rita. I went to the shelter where the people were all coming in. It gave me great pleasure as one of the members to help them in any way I saw fit. As I sat at the desk and heard their stories of how the hurricanes came in on them and brought the terrible hurt they had, I sympathized with them. Some of them came in crying. They were disheartened and hurt because they had lost everything they had. . . I told them if there was anything I could do to help them along their way; I was willing to do it. This quilt is part of Katrina’s and Rita’s healing that I feel that my pastor prepared me for which had not happened at the time I visited with him. It showed me that I would be at the evacuee center helping someone who needed help. They especially needed the Lord. They needed somebody who was spiritual to help them as they went through what they had to go through. Listening to them and their problems and deciding what I could do for them, I felt so blessed. Many of them told me that I was very good to them in filling out their applications. They thanked me very much for everything I did for them."
"This story behind the 'Flying Geese' all wraps around Katrina’s and Rita’s evacuees of the Minden Evacuee Center. I am glad that I was a leader this time. Some even cried on my shoulders. Others wept as I wept with them. We all are supposed to love our Sisters and Brothers no matter where; no matter what we go through. If everybody could love somebody, help somebody, pick others up along the way, give them love, give them a kind word, give them a hug, and let them know that everything is going to be all right, everyone would be better off" (Thompson).
Another poignant narrative that connected Katrina with the Iraq War accompanied the “Patriotic String Quilt” made by Treabie McDonald, a retired personnel specialist, from the federal agency, the Office of Personnel Management in Atlanta, Georgia. She had returned to Minden after retiring to help care for her mother. After the hurricane, she volunteered at the State of Louisiana Social Services Administration for 2 weeks, and when her work there was over, she heard about the relief center and started work there. She explains her volunteer work: “It gave me another purpose because after my mother passed, I was at loose ends. . . I didn’t have nothing to do but sit home and watch TV.” Her quilt narrative explains her design and motivation: "When I decided to make a quilt, my first feeling was excitement because I had not made a quilt before. And then I thought of all our American soldiers including our son, other relatives and friends in Iraq and other areas fighting for our freedom, and I thought of Louisiana and Mississippi devastated by the hurricane disaster. I decided to make a string quilt with the colors of America. To me this quilt represents the love I put in to making it, the love our quilting group shares between one another, my love for Louisiana, my love for America and American’s Armed Services. Therefore, my theme for this quilt is patriotically stringing Louisiana together with love.
Treabie McDonald with the Patriotic String Quilt. Photo by Susan Roach
Unity in Minden
Mary C. Fuller
Mary Fuller. Photo by Susan Roach
Another quilt presented at the festival, “Unity in Minden,” by Mary C. Fuller, also features love and was made to show how the town of Minden came together to help others and improve itself. Fuller’s original quilt design features an appliquéd outline of the state filled with multi-colored squares. In the gray field next to the state, she appliquéd small blocks in which were written in black marker the name of the quilt, “Unity in Minden” and the inscription, “Devastation brought Us together, But ‘Love’is Substaining [sic] Us.” This statement expresses the significance of the races working together in this volunteer effort. Fuller, an African American native who lived in Minden her first 23 years, had worked for Teledyne in Oregon, but retired and moved back to the area at the same time Katrina hit.
Her elaborate narrative accompanying her quilt explains her volunteer experience upon returning and how the volunteers were brought together through their work for the evacuees: "Just after the storm, I found volunteer work in Shreveport. After working there for a few weeks, I then came to Doyline, Louisiana. At that time, I was looking for housing and could not find any because of the storm in New Orleans. With the price of gas being so expensive, I could no longer drive to Shreveport to do volunteer work, so I then contacted volunteers here in Minden. I was hooked up with Mrs. Chris Broussard and Mrs. Jenny Reynolds for work. Being crippled, there was a limited amount of work that I could do, but I was willing to do what I could to try to make things better for the people from New Orleans. I had the privilege of working with these victims one on one as they arrived at the Louisiana Hurricane Relief Center on Homer Road for help. It was quite an experience."
"It was not an easy task to sit there day after day and see the hurt and devastation in these folks’ faces. God gave me the ability to love and respect everybody, no matter how big or how little. I have the God given love that God commanded, 'Love thy neighbor as thou self.' Through the experience of working the front desk at the NLHRC, I was one of the first smiling faces that the people saw when they entered the store and one of the last faces that they saw when they left. I certainly hope I made a difference in their lives. These experiences brought the workers in the Center very close to each other. We learned to love and respect each other. Through these experiences, an idea was formed as to what we should do when the center closed; we decided to keep the love flowing and to keep volunteering alive by making use of the many clothes and other items that were donated to us, that we did not have opportunity to use. During these times, a quilter’s club was started, and we cultivated others to join us in our efforts to do something to help the children and the performing arts in Minden, Louisiana. Through this effort to improve Minden, my 'Unity in Minden' quilt was born" (Fuller).
In the Quilting Queens group, even women who had not previously quilted were urged to piece their own quilts, and given encouragement and support from their quilting relatives and the experienced quilters in the group. Diane Willis, one of the younger members of the group, tells how she came to make her quilt, “Dear Heart” and was helped by her cousin and the memories of her quilting kin: "I had never quilted in my whole entire life when Chris Broussard asked me to help with the quilting. But I remembered when my mother, Camilla, used to make quilts for her family to keep warm. My grandma and my Aunt Laura also made quilts. I used to sit and watch them as they quilted, and when my Auntie died, she had lots of material left. I called my cousin, and she told me to come and get the material over in Shreveport. She said she knew I had some special talents and would be able to quilt. I told her what we were doing, and she said she was happy that someone would be able to use her mother’s materials rather than letting them go to waste."
My Dear Hearts
Ethel Parker. Photo by Susan Roach
Ethel Parker’s narrative for her “Amethyst Quilt” explains how the experienced quilters in the group guided her through her first quilt, which was one of the prize-winning quilts for auction: "This quilt was introduced to me by Mary Howell. Mary came to my home and said 'Ethel, this is the quilt I want you to do.' I said 'OK, Mary' . . . not knowing what I was getting myself into. You see this is my first quilt. Now let me tell you how it came together. First of all, there was Mary choosing colors, telling me 'you can do this, Ethel.' Natasha Hawkins, Dorothy Myers Maxine Bodine, Nancy Berry, Dianne Willis, Virginia Watson, Charlotte Martin, and Glatis Smith . . . all of these ladies played a vital part in the making of this lovely quilt. Now my quilt can be called 'Let Me Help You, Amethyst Quilt.' There’s a lot of love in this quilt . . . you see love brought us together. Later I found out that Amethyst is a purple stone that’s found in the Bible. What a jewel of a quilt" (Parker).
Similarly, Dorothy Myers explains how she came to make her “Leafing out for Louisiana” quilt and its symbolic meaning for the renewal of south Louisiana: "My intentions were to help others with their quilts. However, one of ladies looked me in both eyes and said, 'Oh, yes, you are going to do a quilt.' I told her that I had never made a quilt and did not know anything about them. She offered to help me, and I asked her which one I could do. She advised me to start with the Sweet Gum Leaf. I decided to name my quilt 'Leafing out for Louisiana.' This was to let the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita who lost everything in the hurricanes know that someone in Minden, Louisiana, is 'leafing out' to bring Louisiana together again. I want to show them that they are not forgotten and that we love them. I also want to show them that they are not alone, and I want to help them anyway I can. These are the reasons this quilt is named 'Leafing out for Louisiana.' Every leaf in this quilt is a leaf of love. I thank Chris Broussard who is the reason we started making quilts for Louisiana. I also thank Mary Howell and Virginia Watson who had a part in making this quilt."
Dorothy Myers. Photo by Susan Roach
Mary Howell. Photo by Susan Roach
This gratitude expressed toward Broussard appears in many other narratives. In the quilt narrative for her “Katrina’s Menagerie,” veteran quilter Mary Howell, the ad hoc group leader, dedicated her quilt to Broussard: "One day as I was working at the Center I thought of all the things God had made that was helping rebuild Louisiana. I thought of the lumber taken from the trees, the food taken from the ground, and the fish and shrimp taken from the rivers, ponds, and ocean. Loving animals, I wondered how God could use them to help in the recovery of Louisiana. At that time, I saw a beautiful shirt with lions on it. I immediately thought of what Chris told us about making quilts from the left over clothes. I then thought that God could use animals in a quilt that could be sold to help in the recovery effort. Katrina’s Menagerie is a result of that thought. I lovingly dedicated Katrina’s Menagerie to Chris Broussard and her love for all human beings; especially those who are less fortunate than she" (Howell).
This sampling of the Quilting Queens’ narratives presents the quilters’ responses to Katrina, as well as their responses to their own responder-based community of quilters which emerged as a result of the disaster. The narratives function to bring even more attention to the quilts, to raise the consciousness of the public about the continuing needs of the Gulf coast, and to raise more funds for the region. Along with showing their quilts with their narratives at the Spring Arts Festival, the initial strategy the group had for fundraising with their quilts was to auction the award-winning quilts from the festival judged exhibition on Ebay, so five quilts and their stories were included on the Ebay website. While this strategy was not as successful as they had hoped, they were excited over the national exposure. When some of the quilts did not bring the minimum bid, they took them off and sold them in the community to private citizens.
eBay listing. Photo by Susan Roach
In another philanthropic act, they donated two of the quilts pulled from Ebay auction—“Katrina’s Menagerie” and “God Bless Louisiana”—to the Louisiana State Museum for a special Katrina exhibition. The “God Bless Louisiana” signature quilt, which won for best original design, was pieced by Lucy Youngblood, a stalwart volunteer who worked eight-nine hour days at the center. Because it was pieced before the relief center closed, Youngblood was able to obtain handwritten names and locations of evacuees visiting the center, along with names of the center volunteers. In the “God’s Blessings” quilt, as the group called it, some evacuees signed their own names, and some were put on by the volunteers. MacDowell, Quinney, and Worrall summarize signature quilts, noting that signatures of individuals may be written by that person or someone else in ink, paint, embroidery, etc. Without doubt, “God’s Blessings,” like the traditional signature quilt, is an important “document of a group of people who are bound together in a common cause, a set of relationships, or interests” (107). While the quilt did not raise any money for the group as signature quilts sometimes do, the state museum seems a fitting home to honor the evacuees and volunteers. Other quilts were sold locally; for example, a local couple whose son died in Iraq purchased the “Patriotic String” quilt in honor of their son, with the proceeds of the sales going to the Quilting Queens cause. Their modest prices for the first group of 21 quilts which ranged roughly from $200-$300, raised about $5000 (Broussard, Email 27 June 2011).
The Oprah Quilt
After the 2006 Spring Arts Festival in Minden, the quilting queens returned to their gatherings at the Children’s Center to respond to Katrina in a more global way by making a quilt for Oprah Winfrey, the queen of television philanthropy, to thank her for all she had done for Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. They also decided to donate $2000 from their fundraising efforts to the Angel Network, Winfrey’s own philanthropic fund, which was also supporting Katrina survivors. Undoubtedly, television coverage on news and talk shows prompted this response. After the devastation of Katrina, Oprah Winfrey had expressed her own moral outrage on her television show, and some members of the Quilting Queens were already Oprah fans. Having undergone the mythologizing transformation afforded by her daily television talk show, her wealth, and philanthropy, Oprah is a model for the quilters to emulate. According to semiotics theorists Danesi and Perron, “TV has become an agent for influencing social trends and bringing about social change.” They see Oprah’s type of afternoon talk show as a “medieval morality play,” providing a time for “moral drama, acted out upon a media stage that has replaced the pulpit as the platform on which moral issues are discussed” and the talk hosts are “like medieval priests, comment[ing] morally upon virtually every medical and psychological condition known” (273). Broussard explains the impact of Oprah’s humanitarian outreach on the women: "The Quilting Queens were taken with the love and compassion that Oprah Winfrey showed the Katrina evacuees. . . . In their quiltmaking and discussion, the Quilting Queens decided to give her a gift. She [Oprah] touched them again when she named Katrina Rescuers her most favorite thing. So the Quilting Queens named her their most favorite thing and decided that they would make her a thank you quilt. They made it purple to symbolize her movie, The Color Purple" (Personal interview).
Since the group had chosen a simple star pattern and coordinated a purple color scheme, they had to supplement the limited stock of purple fabric from the donated clothing with fabric purchased especially for the quilt. They cut out the purple pieces and decided that they wanted to have the local third graders help stitch the pieces together; however, they soon found that some of the children’s stitching did not measure up to the standard they had set for their Oprah quilt. Deciding that having the children involved was enough, they removed and redid some of the weaker stitching. In the center of the quilt, they appliquéd a portrait of Oprah painted on fabric by a local artist, Larry Milford. Wanting Oprah to receive the quilt before August 29, 2006, the first anniversary of Katrina, the women pushed themselves to finish it. They were appliquéing the portrait and negotiating and binding the edge on August 23. The quilt would be sent along with a purple quilt-patterned binder inscribed with “A Grateful State Says: Thank You.” The binder included the check and DVD with photos and the story of the quilt’s creation.
Larry Milford with Oprah Portrait. Photo by Susan Roach
The Oprah Quilt. Photo by Susan Roach
Thank You Binder for Oprah. Photo by Susan Roach
Ironically, a year after sending the thank-you to Oprah (after the second anniversary of Katrina), the quilting queens had received no response, except for the signed package receipt from her company, nor was the $2000 check they sent for her Angel Networked cashed—a fact that did not daunt the women (Broussard, Email, 3 October, 2007). They cancelled the check after a year had passed, with the intent to honor it if it ever came through. As Broussard explains, “We all talked about it before we mailed it. We all understood what a celebrity she was and that it was a possibility that we would not hear anything. We all said that this was a thank you gift for her and no thanks in return were expected. So, we have been okay with no response because there were no strings attached to this gift” (Email, 12 October 2007).
In late 2007, the Quilting Queens continued with a smaller core group of about eight women and narrowed their focus from a global to a local perspective. During this period, they continuing quiltmaking to raise money for the Moess Center for the Arts and City Farm, known as “The Farm,” a small farm donated to Cultural Crossroads, where the Spring Arts Festival is located. They also worked with the Cultural Crossroads’ arts in education projects to demonstrate quilting to area children. Along with the dwindling numbers in the quilting group, Broussard sold her Children’s Center business, which took away the group’s meeting place, so they had to seek less convenient alternative spaces. By February 2010, in addition to problems with their meeting location, various members of the group found that increased responsibilities for aging relatives as well as their own health and age-related problems were interfering with their participation in the quilting group. Consequently, Virginia Watson and Levada Mitchell, in consultation with the other group members, decided to discontinue their regular meetings. Yet the women continue to make quilts on their own, which is remarkable since only one center volunteer was a seasoned quilter when the group started.
Quilting Queens of Minden
The Quilting Queens with Oprah pieces. Photo by Susan Roach
Chris Broussard provides her assessment of the group’s achievements: "They left behind a legacy of quilts and related stories that will continue to inspire and motivate for years to come. I think the greatest thing it did was bring women of various backgrounds together to share their sorrows and joys. We all became close and I know in some cases that there were some strong bonds made between people who might not have given the other one the time of day, had it not been for this time in Louisiana's history" (Email 27 June 2011).
Broussard, indeed, was the prime mover and inspiring force behind the Quilting Queens, and all the women express their grateful admiration of her. Mary Howell’s comments in her interview are typical; she said that her experience at the relief center and with the quilters was “one of the greatest blessings” in her life. She expresses the Quilting Queens’s philosophy of giving, personified by Broussard: "And we made these quilts. These quilts are part of us. And we know what the meaning and definition of giving is because we gave ourselves, a part of ourselves. When our quilt sells, that’s a part of us selling for other people. And you can’t beat that. And Chris Broussard--she’s the wind beneath our wings. I’m telling you that my life has been so blessed by that woman coming into [it]. I wonder at night, whatever have I done that made God see me even worthy of that woman coming in my life" (Howell, Personal interview).
Certainly, the Quilting Queens’ quilts function to bring people together for a common cause, to raise money, to provide a means for self-expression, to heal their depression, and to reach across a century of racial division in this rural Southern town. The group interaction provided the social support and talk therapy that is highly recommended for responders. Additionally, this social interaction among the women--telling personal experience narratives, learning new techniques of quiltmaking, and negotiating on jointly produced quilts built solidarity in this interracial group; their responding to Katrina and their quilting activity both gave the women of different races and social strata the opportunity to socialize in a non-threatening environment and to work for a common cause that promoted deep relationships. Ultimately, the quilts and their narratives empower and bond the women, standing as symbols of their community spirit, friendship, and love.
The research for this article was conducted while I served as folklorist for the Louisiana Regional Folklife Program in the Louisiana Division of the Arts (1998-2009). The quilts and hurricane response work of the Quilting Queens was documented for both of the state program’s projects—the Louisiana Quilt Documentation Project
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Written by Susan Roach (2011)
Louisiana Regional Folklife Program
Louisiana Quilt Documentation Project
Louisiana Regional Folklife Program
Louisiana Quilt Documentation Project
Louisiana Regional Folklife Program
Baton Rouge; Louisiana; United States
The Louisiana Quilt Documentation Project features over 2500 quilts made in Louisiana from early 1800s to the present.9-66-1
My Dear Heart
Fuller, Mary C.
Quilting Queens of ...