She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. … She has handed down respect for the possibilities—and the will to grasp them.
—Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens
The slight variations in the floral print and color mesmerize, and the repetition of the 20 appliquéd blocks is meditative—but the top of Fannie Lee Chaney’s Patchwork Quilt (1980) does not immediately reveal her personal history, or her connection to the Black textile tradition. Written in the corner of the quilt’s backing in black ink, “Collection of Peggy Hartwell” states its provenance.1 Aside from the out-of-print book What’s This Got to Do with Quilting?: Nine Stories of Southern Women Quilters Living in New York City, this quilt is among the few materials that connect to the kinship, care, and beauty in Chaney’s life. In this exhibition catalogue, she describes her process of using generations-old textiles as the batting for new quilts. These two extant materials also connect her to a communal history of Black women using textile arts as a mutual aid network and a safe space to envision a Southern Black liberated life.
In 1985, Peggy Hartwell and other members in the Women of Color Quilters Network set up Chaney to sell and exhibit her quilts so that she could earn a living. The network and the Elder Craftsmen Textile Project were also part of her new community after the Ku Klux Klan forced her to leave her home in Mississippi, nearly burning it to the ground when she refused to stop her racial and economic justice campaigns. Had the network members not built a relationship and preserved her story, Chaney’s work would have been even more fragmented and obscured. Founded in 1985, the national organization carried out the commitments to kinship and mutual aid that many of the textile cooperatives in Mississippi and Alabama experimented with, realizing that some of the civil rights ideologies were not expansive enough to change the condition of poor Southern Black women.
However, Black women textile artists have historically practiced imagining different configurations for a liberated life and society. Consider Alice Walker: in all of the ways she knew her mother and grandmother, Walker realized, she did not fully grasp that they were artists until she looked at how they orchestrated their lives. Despite all of the beauty and exigency in her mother’s day-to-day work, her quilting—her art—is only formally documented and accessible through Walker’s writings. Only a concentrated tonic of perspective, technique, and feeling poured into new and old fabrics could produce those sartorial delights and that home decor. The ephemeral and utilitarian nature of her work was the root of its magic, a quality that also resists typical archival practices. No reams of correspondence, diary entries, or bills of sale exist, so Walker attempts to account for an archive that centers hand, eye, and soul to engage with what it means to choose possibilities rather than limitations.
An archive of the hand, eye, and soul—or the work of Black women textile artists, 1960 to 1980—is amorphous and does a dance of revealing and concealing. Historiographically, the women extending the Black textile tradition move between civil rights, Black Power, and labor organizing, and also something beyond. Archival documents like written correspondence are by and large operational, and obscure the experimental tenor of their making. In oral histories they sometimes told winding allegoric stories. They also just plainly stated that they were poor and tired, and that their particular arrangement of textile work offered an escape. They named and did not name their commitments in ways that we would recognize. While even art historians still propagate a narrowed Black quilt aesthetic, they sometimes land on the word “experimental.” In so doing, they still miss that the quilters were experimenting not solely with the patterns and color palette but also with a way of living and relating to each other and the world.
To let the ground lie fallow can be a loving act, an intention that encourages restoration supporting future growth and possibility. But, while thinking with Jean Toomer on the condition of Black women born in the post-Reconstruction South, Alice Walker notes that everyone feigned care and left them in perpetual fallowness, except for themselves.2
The world awakens to the brilliance of Black textile traditions in waves but still seems to miss that the aesthetic and the story are buttressed by the women’s care and attention to one another. The work continues because—even when there is demand from curators, collectors, and tastemakers—they care about each other’s desire to use art to experiment with liberation. And what if care, and mutual aid, were inseparable from art itself?
Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens was just one node in the constellation of Black women working to find their way back to a life of possibility. Since the 1980s, Carolyn Mazloomi has been practicing possibility through quilting and culture preservation. An aerospace engineer turned fiber artist, Mazloomi founded the African-American Quilt Guild of Los Angeles in 1981. The discovery and kinship-building work that she did there was a dress rehearsal for her starting the larger-scale Women of Color Quilters Network, a global group of artists, preservationists, and educators committed to the history and legacy of Black textile traditions.
The network artists have held a number of acclaimed exhibitions, including Textural Rhythms: Quilting the Jazz Tradition (2007), Quilting African American Women’s History: Our Challenges, Creativity, and Champions (2008), And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations (2015), and the rapid response We Are the Story exhibition that opened at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in September 2020. They have done the work of showing the world the diversity in the Black quilting tradition, which goes beyond improvisation to include appliqué pictorial quilts, the vibrant portraits by Bisa Butler, and the fiber sculptures by Carolyn Crump. A number of their members have received prestigious residencies and fellowships.
They have also done the internal work to discover what it means to be kin and support each other. A good number of the quilts in the network’s collection at the Michigan State University Museum are portraits or visual prayers paying homage and respect to each other. Without their attention to care and mutual aid, we would be missing key connections to histories that are fragmented or not present at all in institutional archives.
Black women textile artists have historically practiced imagining different configurations for a liberated life and society.
Fannie Lee Chaney often appears only connected to her son, and sometimes to other victims of white vigilante violence. In an interview with The Courier Post, she mentioned that her grandfather disappeared after refusing to sell his land to some interested white folks. Decades later, in 1964, members of the Ku Klux Klan killed her son James Chaney, along with two other organizers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He had started organizing with the NAACP when he was in elementary school and had also started working at a trade union shortly after completing high school. She had always been concerned for both of her sons’ safety but still encouraged them to join in the struggle. And when her son died, she became even more vocal, participating in massive crusades, giving keynotes, and joining education drives. She lost her job at a bakery and filed racial discrimination lawsuits at multiple restaurants in Meridian, Mississippi. She and her family experienced an onslaught of hate crimes and repaired her son’s grave after it was vandalized. The second time that a cross was burned on her front lawn forced her out of the state.
After Freedom Summer, Fannie Lee Chaney fell out of the public record until 2005, when she testified on day four of the Mississippi v. Edgar Ray Killen trial. Even though the trial was 41 years after the murders, the belated channel of recourse came through the James Earl Chaney Foundation. At the age of 82, she made the trip to the Neshoba County Courthouse and testified about the killing of her son and the attacks she faced. Then she largely disappeared into obscurity. There’s not much in the way of aftercare or even newer activists acknowledging the particular struggles she faced.
But after all of that, she had a floral print quilt. That was part of her legacy. Her only connection was to women who were looking to build community and pick up the broken pieces where the rest of the world had left Fannie, and women like her, in the past. They brought her name and the fabric of her life to a generation of people who would have no other way of knowing her without doing a dive into court records.
Part of the tragedy of Fannie Lee Chaney being driven out of her home state, and even out of the South, is that she was removed from a contemporaneous network of women who were using their work as a way to imagine freedom for themselves. Trying to stay alive took her away from the path she was on to realize a way for Black people to live in liberation and economic freedom. In the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt, the ground was fertile for a more radical politics and a different way of relating to each other and the land. Black women—carrying the burden of work and family life—were not content with the incremental changes that legislative strategies offered. While the popular movement celebrated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, poor Black women were acutely aware of the ways that legislation did not protect them against vigilante violence, sexual assault, and abject poverty.
When Mississippi SNCC organizer Jesse Morris and Alabama’s Silas Norman came together to start the Poor People’s Corporation, women from Lowdnes County to Sumpter County wrote eager letters to their offices. In sprawling cursive, usually one woman wrote on behalf of the others, and told the program coordinators about what they wanted.
They wanted to work with other Black women. They wanted to earn an income to take care of their family and contribute to their community. Their emphasis on wanting to create quilts and tapestries and not solely work in clothing repair was their quiet hope and anticipation that they would finally have a reputable outlet for their creativity, and that they would own their labor. Working in a cooperative was a way for them to step outside of the system.
The world awakens to the brilliance of Black textile traditions in waves, but still seems to miss that the story is one of women’s care and attention to one another.
Even more secluded from the reach of SNCC’s economic development support were the women in Wilcox County, Alabama, who managed the Freedom Quilting Bee. The small outpost was ripe with creative talent that sometimes overlapped with the well-known quilters of Gees Bend. Although they had traveled to Selma—a multihour trip that usually involved a ferry—and participated in protests and voter education drives, they had to return home without the protection of a mass movement. After hearing of their organizing, white employers would blacklist them, and white landlords would throw them off their property. They were tired and needed a new way of expressing their political lives and owning their labor. Forming their own cooperative was a way for them to dream and live the life that the Jim Crow South did not script for them.
For a while, their experiment in piecing together a new type of freedom worked. Twenty-five Black women, led by founding managers Estelle Witherspoon and Callie Young, opened the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center in the summer of 1969. Photographer Henry Groskinsky’s photos show multiple women working at different stations with large wooden quilt frames, and some women measuring and piecing together fabric on the floor. Like their known techniques in abstraction and improvisation, their art primed them to think about a space where societal, political, and economic constraints were abandoned. It’s still a wonder that we do not cite the Freedom Quilting Bee when we think of communities who were attempting to approach a utopian planned economy.
The part of their story that is documented and archived slightly more than their experiment with living otherwise, but still underdocumented, is their eventual commercialization. By 1972 the Freedom Quilting Bee signed an agreement with Sears, Roebuck to produce corduroy pillowcases. Interior designers, notably Sister Parish, began purchasing and promoting the bee’s work. Commercialization then left them at the mercy of white Northern liberals, who purchased less of their work when the aesthetic veered from abstract to Black consciousness.
We are left with feelings, reckonings, and coming back to what Alice Walker described as seeing what was there all along. Contemporary practitioners in the tradition, like those in the Women of Color Quilters Network, have tried to guide us to this way of seeing and so much more. As it is, the archive cannot hold all of these varying modalities, and I imagine that the textile artists during this time of blossoming cooperatives would not have wanted their entirety squeezed and centered there.
Piecing together a life that disrupts the loop of the oppressive order cannot only be an intellectual exercise. Finding all there is of the history and continued legacy is part of the journey to making freedom in our own lives. Indeed, freedom is a constant struggle.