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Traveling Quilt Exhibit in Orlando Weaves Together Black American Narratives

The 69 quilts in the exhibit offer a glimpse of history through the lens of black artists. Photo: Renata Sago.
The 69 quilts in the exhibit offer a glimpse of history through the lens of black artists. Photo: Renata Sago.

A wooden ship carrying brown bodies floats through a sea of silk organza fabric.

Red, white, and blue flags hang from a mast.

A canon made of zippers sticks out at onlookers.

It’s a scene from 1619, when one of the first ships arrived in America with slaves from Africa. It’s detailed enough to feel reel—but it’s just a quilt.

“When you say quilt exhibit, people don’t really understand what that means in context of what we’ve got here," said Kimberlee Riley, assistant director of the Orange County Regional History Museum. It is the first place to host the traveling exhibit from Ohio, which features 69 quilts. They recount moments like the March on Washington and a massacre that destroyed Rosewood, an all-black central Florida town.

“It is literally an art exhibit as well as a history exhibit," Riley said.

The exhibit is also a step back into childhood for Debbe King. She lives in Deltona now and can think back to when she was 19 in the Navy, but could not vote.

“I remember sleeping under quilts that my grandmother made. I remember coming to Florida on vacations to visit families and we had to stay in hotels and motels for coloreds. I can visually see those signs," she recounted while visiting the exhibit.

Quilting in African American culture came out of a need to stay warm and to navigate laws that kept blacks from reading and writing. But these days, it is associated with hobbyism and grandmothers.

Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi curated the exhibit to change that view.

“There are people in universities around the world that are studying quilts. They’re historical documents that really give a glimpse into people’s lives," she said.

Mazloomi heads the Women of Color Quilters Network, an international group with over 500 quilters. She believes quilts can be as, if not more, relevant today, than in the past.

“Statistics show that the average American does not get their history not necessarily from reading. It’s more a visual input," she added.

That’s why Marlene O’Bryant started making quilts 20 years ago. They reminded her of extensions of the bulletin boards for years as a school teacher in South Carolina.

Two of her quilts appear in the exhibit—one of freedom fighter, Denmark Vesey—and the other, a two-fold look at civil rights progress, past and present. In them, she uses everything from school records from her great grandparents to design apps on her iPad to bring stories to life. Her goal is to defy myths of what African American quilt making is or should be.

“Most of us who quilt now are not making quilts for beds. We’re making quilts to go on walls. We have the time and the resources to choose the fabric that we want, to do the research and so it has manifested itself in spectacular work," O'Bryant said.

However, keeping the legacy of the work alive means introducing quilting to younger people. The average age in the Women of Color Quilters Network is 72—something that exhibit curator Carolyn Mazloomi hopes to change.

“It’s so much about our heritage that they don’t know because they don’t necessarily learn it in school,” she said.

Back at the exhibit, I found a group of children weaving from quilt to quilt—taking in nuggets of history about sports, law, and economics.

“So is there any quilt that you all really like?," I asked. "The Trayvon Martin one!" they shouted. They explained the quilt—which was a young hooded boy holding Skittles in one hand and Arizona Tea in the other. They explained what the understood of Martin's image.

The quilt resonated with them, because it revived an image that they had seen.

And that is the very power and purpose of the tradition—quilters—past and present would say.