URI students quilt their way through black women’s history

KINGSTON, R.I. — December 18, 2001 — University of Rhode Island senior Jason Charron of Warwick looks at the quilt square he has created, wrinkles his nose and asks if the stitches he made along the square’s bottom look like a fence. When told that they do, his face falls. “Darn,” he says with at least the tip of his tongue planted in his cheek, “they’re supposed to be railroad tracks.” His classmates laugh.

Charron and 23 other URI students, are part of a quilting bee, sitting around a table in URI’s Multicultural Center putting finishing touches on their squares and assembling them into a colorfully diverse quilt.

The quilt is part of the class, Black Women in America: From Colonial Times to the Present, taught by Rae Ferguson, assistant professor in URI’s History Department. “I always try to interject interactive projects into my classes,” she says. “It changes the dynamic and creates a better understanding of the topic.”

Quilting was common in slave quarters, the history professor says. Men, as well as, women would quilt at night while their children held lanterns up for light.

African-American quilting is much different than European, explains Ferguson, noting that African-American quilts are created in a similar way that jazz gets created. The quilt is often used as a metaphor. Each square represents individuality, suggesting that a person’s centering comes from the inside rather than the outside. Only in stitching the quilt squares together does the whole come out of different roles. The quilt, thereby, leaves room for diversity.

This differs from European quilting where the design of the quilt is established beforehand and then imposed onto the fabric.

Ferguson, a musician and crafter, required that each of her students create one quilt square, representing either a black woman, event, scene or idea they found interesting from their readings. A paper explaining the choice is also required.

“When I announced that the last four weeks of class would involve quilting, some of my male students rolled their eyes,” recalls Ferguson with a laugh.

“I’m a natural as it turns out,” says quilter Paul Roy of Warwick, wearing a wide smile and a baseball cap backwards. Roy created a square with the words “Respect” and “Think” in tribute to Aretha Franklin. The words are timeless messages, he says.

Dave Morris of Woonsocket drew the American flag, the symbol for woman, and the words, “We, too, Sing America,” playing off “I, too, Sing America,” the poem Langston Hughes made famous. The URI senior said he created his square to remind people that black women’s contribution to history has been either misrepresented or lost.

Andrea Relator from East Greenwich devoted her square to jazz singer Billie Holiday. Written on the square are two of Holiday’s songs: “Strange Fruit,” which referred to lynching of blacks going on at the time in the Deep South, and “Good Morning Heartache.” Relator said quilting gave her an opportunity to explore Holiday’s contribution in an innovative way.

Charron is looking almost satisfied at his fenced railroad tracks. He picked the subject of the Underground Railroad for his square mainly because as a kid he had always pictured a train running underground and wondered how that worked. Now, of course, he realizes that the words represent an historical network of people and safe houses that helped slaves escape to freedom. “I love this class,” says the political science and history major. “This is the second class I’ve had with Professor Ferguson. The classes aren’t conventional. You know there’s a saying that says there’s always a course or a professor you’ll remember after you leave college. This will be the one for me.”

For Information: Jan Wenzel, 874-2116