DENTON — A crowd gathered at the Fiber Arts Center of the Eastern Shore in Denton Friday evening, Aug. 2, to hear African American Quilters of Baltimore member and historian Vera P. Hall present “A Civil War Quilt Story.”
The lecture was part of Fiber Fest 2013, a three-day celebration of fiber arts, which featured special Underground Railroad theme programs this year in celebration of the grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, according to Marina Dowdall of FACES.
Several of Hall’s pieces are featured in the current FACES exhibit from the African American Quilters of Baltimore, “Each One Teach One,” on display through Aug. 24.
Hall told stories about African-Americans and African-American life during the transition from slavery to freedom, represented by the blocks on her Civil War quilt, “We, Too, Sing America.”
She started off with the “Charm” square, which showed how slaves came from all different parts of African. Next was the “Slave Ships” block, representing “black ships that came in the night,” she said. She told how the prisoners would throw themselves overboard if they could to try to escape, and when life got hard on the boat, their captors might throw them overboard to drown.
Those who survived were sold, which brought her to her third square showing a slave at auction. Slaves were regarded as livestock, she said, and a healthy, able-bodied black man would go for $2,500.
Those early African Americans didn’t complain about the hard work they had to do, but about the unjust punishment they received for the slightest infraction, she said, which brought her to the fourth square, showing onions and turpentine. She asked if anyone knew why that might be, and an audience member correctly guessed they were used to hide a runaway slave’s scent from the dogs.
The next square features Frederick Douglass, and Hall recounted the story of his escape from slavery, his capture and Harriet Tubman’s assistance in his eventually reaching freedom. The square also featured a number of black question marks. “Are we the country whose ideas about liberty and freedom are above all others?” she asked.
The sixth square, Hall described as the “Crossroads” block. She spoke of conditions of the country just prior to the start of the Civil War. At the time, the issue was one more of economics than of slavery, she said. Slavery provided for the economic engine of the southern states.
The seventh square is the “Fort Sumter Flag” block, she said, recalling the Battle of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Next is the Lincoln block, showing a picture of President Abraham Lincoln imprinted on a flag. Then comes a block bearing the dates 1861-1865, the dates of the Civil War. The 10th is the “Beauregard Surrounded” block, representing the Union victory at Ft. Sumter.
Once the war got going, slaves came in droves to the Union, she said. They were called “Contraband of War,” the next block. They wanted to help win their freedom, she said. Among them was Eliza Smith, who said, “I will work to free myself,” and she became a cook for the Union troops. She is featured in the 11th block. The 12th block lists many of the occupations the escaped and freed slaves took up in the north: waiters, guides, spies, nurses and orderlies.
The 14th block shows two pictures of the same young boy. In the first, he is a raggedy boy with his clothing in tatters, looking hopeless. In the second, he had found his way north and become a drummer boy. He is wearing a uniform and his whole demeanor has changed, Hall said.
The 15th block depicts the sentiment of the armed services in the early part of the war that freed black men shouldn’t be allowed to bear arms, Hall said. The 16th shows the silhouette of a soldier bearing a gun, representing the shift in attitude when blacks were able to take up arms. The 17th block is about them becoming recruiters for the Union Army.
The 18th block represents the 54th Regiment, the first black regiment. “There are a lot of stories about them,” she said. “They did themselves proud.”
The 19th block represents how many blacks served in the war; there were 166 regiments, she said.
The 20th block depicts Sojourner Truth, who Hall described as “an old, manly women, who liked to squawk.” But she sold card to help support the Civil War, Hall said.
Lincoln makes a second appearance in the next square, a memorial block; Lincoln was killed just nine days after the Civil War ended, Hall said.
She quoted Elizabeth Keckly, Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamtress, on his death, “No common mortal has died.”
The final block, “Birds in the Air,” represents the freedom that came after the war, she said.
The red fabric behind the blocks, linking them all together represents the blood shed on both sides, she said.
In addition to the Civil War quilt, Hall has several African-American history pieces on display at FACES, including quilts featuring Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Keckly and President Barack Obama.