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Quilt images had meaning for slaves

Black History event

Allison Smith of Warren discusses quilts and symbols and images on quilts at a Black History Month program at Kinsman House in Warren.

WARREN — Flying geese and bear paws are just some of the images that can often be found in directional quilts that many slaves may have looked for as they were fleeing north for their freedom.

Warren resident Allison Smith, who has made many styles of quilts, was the guest speaker for a Black History program held Monday at the Kinsman House where she showed many quilts from the 1800s to the present.

Several of Smith’s quilts are being displayed this month at the Trumbull Art Gallery in Warren as the February Artist of the Month.

“For many years, our foremothers and forefathers made quilts to help keep warm with. The colors of the quilts have evolved and changed over the years,” she said.

Smith said when the slaves came from Africa, they brought with them what some said were rags, but they used that material to make quilts using herbs to add colors.

American abolitionist and activist Harriett Tubman was known for the wedding-style quilts she made.

Smith said there are different opinions and views of what the images meant on the quilts during the Underground Railroad to freedom. She said such images have been found on quilts of the Civil War period.

She said different people interpret images on the quilts.

“People who were seeking freedom remembered signs of moss growing on the north side of the tree, the North Star, or the water and did not always need a quilt to tell them something. I feel if someone is running, they will look for any sign,” Smith said,

She said the Underground Railroad quilts had many different squares with images and symbols on them such as a wagon wheel, North Star, flying geese going either north or south depending on the season, bear’s paws, crossroads, or squares with a red or black box in the middle letting someone know if a place was a safe house.

“When they got to a house where they saw a quilt they would knock on the door and say ‘Friend of Friend’ and the answer from the person inside would be ‘Friend of Friend’ they knew it was a safe house.” she said.

She said many of the slave quarters had “quilt parties” where people would gather to work on quilts while discussing the latest news and gossip.

Warren resident Helen Rucker said many people inherit their grandmother’s or other family members’ quilts and do not always know what to do with them.

Smith said as a family member gets older their relatives often get items, including quilts.

“I tell people to not give away those old quilts. They may think the old stuff is trash but to our relatives those quilts and items were important. I learned about my culture and history from images on my relatives’ quilts,” she said.

Smith said she has seen Bible quilts that tell the stories of the Bible on them.

She said into the 1900s the quilts became richer in colors and the materials have evolved.

Smith said her daughter was adopted at age 8, and she made a special adoption quilt for her.

“You can always make quilts from any material — even something someone else thinks is junk,” she said.

She showed such quilts as a Kwanzaa-themed one and a 1,000-piece quilt her daughter made over six months.

Smith said she and others meet the first Friday of each month from 10 a.m. to noon and 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Joann Fabrics to work on quilts and other projects.

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