The Fascinating History of African American Quilting Exploring the Art, Culture, and Legacy

The Fascinating History of African American Quilting

African American quilting has a rich and fascinating history that is deeply rooted in the experiences of African Americans throughout American history. From the earliest days of slavery to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, quilting has played an important role in shaping the cultural and artistic landscape of the United States.

In this article, we will explore the art, culture, and legacy of African American quilting. We will discuss the history of quilting in the African American community, the significance of quilts in African American culture, and the impact of African American quilting on American art and history.

The History of African American Quilting

Image Source: Folklife in Louisiana Josie Shelton (b. 1917), of Haynesville, in Claiborne Parish, produced an accidental variation of the “Drunkard’s Path” quilt, when she inadvertently pieced the pattern differently from the traditional one.

African American quilting has its roots in the days of slavery when African slaves were forced to make do with whatever scraps of fabric they could find. These scraps were often salvaged from old clothing or discarded materials, and were used to create patchwork quilts that were both functional and beautiful.

Despite the harsh conditions of slavery, African slaves found creative ways to express themselves through their quilting. They used intricate patterns and bold colors to create quilts that told stories, reflected their cultural heritage, and celebrated their resilience in the face of adversity.

As African Americans gained more freedom and autonomy in the decades following the Civil War, quilting became an even more important part of their lives. African American women in particular played a key role in preserving and advancing the art of quilting, using their skills to create beautiful and intricate quilts that were sold or given as gifts.

The Significance of Quilts in African American Culture

african american quilting - people showing their art

Quilts have always played an important role in African American culture. They were used for practical purposes such as keeping warm, but they also had deeper cultural and social significance.

For example, quilts were often used to commemorate important events and figures in African American history. They were used to honor civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., to celebrate black pride, and to protest racial inequality.

In addition to their cultural significance, quilts also served as a form of community building and social connection. Quilting bees, where women would gather to sew and socialize, were a common occurrence in African American communities. Quilting allowed women to connect with one another, share stories and traditions, and support one another in times of need.

The Roots of African American Quilting

roots of african american quilting

Quilting has a rich history that stretches back to the pre-Civil War era. Although quilting was already a popular craft in colonial America, it took on new meaning and significance for African Americans. Slavery forced many African Americans to create practical items such as clothing and bedding from whatever scraps they could find. These early quilts often featured bold geometric patterns and bright colors and were made with a combination of European and African techniques.

Pre-Civil War Quilting Traditions

african american quilting in pre-civil war era

Before the Civil War, quilting was primarily done by women in the home. African American women played a significant role in developing the quilt-making traditions that would come to be associated with their culture. Quilts were often made for practical purposes such as bedding or warmth, but they also held important cultural significance. Quilting bees provided a social space for African American women to gather and share their skills and stories.

The Impact of Slavery on African American Quilting

impact of slavery on african american quilting
Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia. Painting by Eyre Crowe

During slavery, African Americans were often denied access to formal education and the tools and materials needed for traditional quilt-making. Instead, they developed their own techniques using materials such as scraps of cloth, worn-out clothing, and discarded blankets. This led to the development of unique quilting styles that incorporated improvisation, bold colors, and symbolism.

The Great Migration and the Spread of Quilting Traditions

The Arthur family arrived at Chicago’s Polk Street Depot on August 30, 1920, during the Great Migration.

The Great Migration of the early 20th century saw millions of African Americans moving from the rural South to urban areas in the North and Midwest. As a result, quilting traditions that had been developed in the South began to spread across the country. African American women continued to use quilting as a means of expression and resistance, creating quilts that celebrated their culture and shared their stories.

The Legacy of African American Quilting

Today, quilting continues to thrive as an art form and a cultural tradition. From traditional patchwork designs to modern art quilts, African American quilters are creating beautiful and innovative works that reflect their unique experiences and perspectives.

The legacy of quilting can be seen in the work of contemporary artists like Faith Ringgold, who has gained international acclaim for her vibrant and powerful quilts. Ringgold’s work, which often addresses issues of race, gender, and social justice, has been exhibited in museums around the world and has inspired a new generation of quilters.

Quilting as a Form of Resistance and Expression

Quilting has often been used as a form of resistance and expression. From the Underground Railroad quilt code to the Civil Rights Movement, quilts have been used to convey secret messages, document historical events, and assert political statements.

The Underground Railroad Quilt Code

the underground railroad quilt code

According to legend, quilts were used as a secret code by escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. Each pattern and color had a specific meaning, and slaves would use quilts to signal messages to those who were helping them escape to freedom. For example, a quilt with a “monkey wrench” pattern could mean that a slave needed a wrench to repair a wagon, while a “bear paw” pattern could indicate that it was safe to follow a particular route.

Despite some controversy among historians about the authenticity of the quilt code, it remains a powerful symbol of African American quilting history and the ingenuity of enslaved people in their pursuit of freedom.

The Freedom Quilting Bee and the Civil Rights Movement

map of gee's bend, alabama
Map of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

In the mid-1960s, a group of African American women in Alabama founded the Freedom Quilting Bee as a way to support the Civil Rights Movement. The Bee, which produced quilts and other textile products, was a cooperative that provided much-needed income to its members.

The quilts made by the Freedom Quilting Bee were sold in stores and at events across the country, and they became symbols of resistance and solidarity. The Bee’s products were also featured in the Smithsonian Institution’s “Creative Hands” exhibit in 1974, bringing national attention to quilting traditions.

freedom quilting bee
Freedom Quilting Bee, women around the quilt. Birmingham, Ala. Public Library Archives, 255.4.2

Quilting as a Political Statement

Throughout history, African American quilting has been used as a form of political expression. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, quilters like Faith Ringgold and Carolyn Mazloomi created quilts that addressed issues of race, gender, and identity.

Ringgold’s “story quilts” were a form of narrative art that combined painting, quilting, and storytelling. Mazloomi founded the Women of Color Quilters Network in 1985, which aimed to promote and preserve the work of African American quilters.

African American Quilting Today

Photo by Dave Shafer

Today, African American quilting is a vibrant and evolving art form. There are countless African American quilters working in a variety of styles and techniques, from traditional quilting to art quilting.

Contemporary African American Quilting Artists

Contemporary African American Quilting Artist Bisa Butler
Bisa Butler

Some notable contemporary African American quilters include Bisa Butler, who creates stunning portraits using fabric and quilting techniques, and Sonya Clark, who explores issues of race and identity in her textile art.

african american quilting by michael a. cummings
Michael A. Cummings

Other contemporary African American quilters include Michael A. Cummings, who creates intricate and colorful narrative quilts, and Valerie Goodwin, who specializes in creating three-dimensional art quilts inspired by architecture and urban landscapes.

valeria goodwin
Valeria Goodwin & One of her latest works: Map Abstractions 2019 25.5″ x 36″

The Revival of Quilting Traditions

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in traditional quilting techniques and the preservation of African American quilting traditions. Organizations like the International African American Quilt Association and the Women of Color Quilters Network continue to promote the work of African American quilters and provide opportunities for education and community building.

African American Quilting in Popular Culture

African American quilting has also been celebrated in popular culture, with movies like “How to Make an American Quilt” and the book and TV series “Hidden in Plain View” bringing attention to the history and significance of African American quilting.

Hidden in plain view a secret story of quilts

In addition, African American quilts have been featured in museum exhibitions around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit “And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations”.


In conclusion, African American quilting is a rich and vibrant art form that spans centuries and has deep cultural and historical significance. From the early days of slavery to the modern era, African American quilters have used their creativity to express themselves and make a statement about their lives and the world around them.

The Underground Railroad quilt code is a fascinating piece of history that highlights the resourcefulness and bravery of escaped slaves. The Freedom Quilting Bee and the Civil Rights Movement show how quilting was used as a tool for empowerment and economic independence. Quilting as a Political Statement illustrates how African American quilters have used their art form to bring attention to social and political issues.

Contemporary African American Quilting Artists continue to push the boundaries of traditional quilting and bring new perspectives to the art form. The Revival of Quilting Traditions demonstrates the enduring nature of quilting and how it continues to thrive in the modern era. African American Quilting in Popular Culture shows how quilting has become a part of mainstream culture and is celebrated for its beauty and significance.

African American quilting is an important part of American history and culture that deserves to be recognized and celebrated. Its impact is felt not just in the art world but in society as a whole. Through their art, African American quilters have left an indelible mark on history and continue to inspire future generations of artists and creators.

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