Quilting a Legacy

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on February 18, 2001

Gustina Atlas has a priceless family legacy, and for seven years, the Port Gibson, Miss., resident has been passing it down to younger generations the best way she knows: through quilting.

Atlas, 63, is one of 10 members of the Mississippi Cultural Crossroads Quilters, founded in Port Gibson in 1987 by its current director, Patricia Crosby. The women, ranging in age from 18 to 83, originally came together to learn quilting from Hystercine Rankin, a prominent area quilter. Now, the quilters meet twice monthly to quilt and discuss life matters.

Atlas speaks passionately about quilting, her conversation peppered with such terms as topping and sashing and fence railing. Pressed for details, she will gladly explain, yet she seems genuinely mystified that anyone could be ignorant of quilting nomenclature. For so many of the women in Claiborne County, Miss., young and old, black and white, quilting is a way of life.

Each week, Atlas volunteers as a bookkeeper at the Mississippi Cultural Crossroads Center in downtown Port Gibson, where she also spends much time quilting. The center exists primarily for the quilters, although it holds after-school and summer arts programs for children. Essie Buck, 68, is a center employee. Although Bucks mother made her begin quilting at the age of 13, because we had a large family and quilting was a practical matter, she now quilts out of love for the art form. I cant imagine not quilting, she says while producing her string quilt, which consists of inch-wide scraps of colorful fabrics left over from other quilts. These strings of cloth signify the frugal nature of families who quilted out of necessity.

When she was younger, quilting was a true community experience, Buck says. Once a family had finished a quilt top (the pretty, decorative part), their neighbors helped complete the quilt with batting and lining. While sitting around a makeshift frame that stretched out the quilt, the women shared in the oral tradition of storytelling and held lively conversations. After a quilt was finished for one family, the process began anew.

It was work with a specific mission. These quilts memorialized and recorded that which is the substance of life: births, deaths, epiphanies even murders.

Something to Pass on Lest We Forget

Rankin, 68, celebrated her family history in what is called the Memory Quilt, on permanent display with the members personal quilts, pillows, and other quilted items for sale in the Cultural Crossroads gallery, which is adjacent to the center and owned by the quilters. The Memory Quilt recounts the life of one family, from a square representing Ma and Pa picking cotton to a dark illustration of Rankins father being gunned down and killed in the 1940s. Yes, even the bad times must be remembered.

The Crossroads Quilters, cognizant of the cultural and generational significance of what they do, offer free classes on an ongoing basis to children and adults at the center. Local children take classes after school two days per week as part of the Young Persons Cultural Exchange Program, a statewide initiative that encourages the sharing of arts and ideas between students and teachers. The children bring drawings or paintings they want to replicate into a quilt and select pieces of fabric. The women then appliqué the pieces to a background square, and the two generations collaborate to complete the quilt.

Their instruction also is offered to men and women. However, the quilters have learned that once women learn to quilt, they are the ones who want to pass it on. The Crossroads Quilters taught quilting techniques to a group of incarcerated women. Later, one of the quilters followed up with the women who had been released and discovered that many of them continued the craft and were teaching their children. And the two women who remained incarcerated were teaching other inmates.

The quilters have, through word-of-mouth, garnered teaching appointments throughout the country, including in St. Louis, Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., where they were featured at the Smithsonian Institutions Festival of American Folklife in 1996.

The groups quilts are displayed in galleries and museums across the United States and in parts of Africa. A good many also are part of a collection owned by Roland Freeman, author of A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories.

Says Freeman, The Cultural Crossroads quilters (group) is about far more than something to keep you warm. Its about stitching together the community.

And the Crossroads Quilters earned the 2000 Heritage Award, one of the Mississippi Governors Awards for Excellence in the Arts.

But more importantly, by chronicling unsung lives and vanishing, rural cultures, the quilters teach us all the richness of heritage.