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Monday, February 20, 2017

Weekly update: African-American quilt history

Pnwheel Flower, Missouri, ca. 1860
This is the Perspectives column for the March 1 Zion-Benton News. (Yes, I wrote it a week early.)

This month’s special exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African-American History encouraged me to make good on a long-held wish to spend a day exploring that museum.  When the Zion-Benton Public Library hosted the DuSable’s mobile museum on February 13 I was doubly-encouraged. (I hope you, too, took the time to walk through the museum “bus” when it was parked in front of the library.)

My friend Rosemary was glad to join me.  It was a crisp and sunny day, perfect for a walk from Ogilvie station to Michigan Avenue where we got on the CTA bus that took us right to the museum at  Cottage Grove and 57th in Washington Park.

“Unpacking Collections” features quilts acquired by  Cuesta Benberry.  She was a pioneer in the field of quilt history research with an emphasis on quilts made by African-Americans.  As exhibit curator Marsha McDowell says, “Every collection reflects a point of view, a passion,a mindful purpose of the collector who made it.”  A literal unpacking of a collection involves its care, interpretation, and accessibility.  A figurative unpacking of a collection considers the scholar and the subject of the research.

Benberry (1923-2007) lived in St. Louis. She had degrees in education and library science.  Her interest in quilts was sparked shortly after her marriage.  “All of the women in my husband’s family were very proud of their quilts and what amazed me was that the quilts had names,” she wrote. “They’d put their quilts in competition in county fairs. It was the quilt designs and patterns that first attracted me.  I found out there were pattern collectors and I became one, too.”
Red Boots by Fanny Cork ca. 1890
Cuesta's husband's great-great grandmother

Her expertise grew. She wrote numerous articles and four books about African-American quilts. She was a consultant for nearly every major exhibit of African-American quilts.  She was a founding member of the American Quilt Study Group, the premiere association for scholarly quilt studies. She was a well-regarded mentor to other quilt historians.

WPA Tulip, by Minnie Benberry, ca.1930
Interestingly, Benberry was not a quilter herself.  She made several blocks but not entire quilts.   The DuSable exhibit features 52 items from her collection.   The oldest is from the mid-19th century.  Another was made by her mother-in-law. It features a tulip pattern.  The story was that during the Depression the Works Progress Administration (WPA) distributed the pattern to many women in one rural area. The next spring when they gathered at their church to quilt their tops they discovered they’d all used the same pattern. 

I didn’t want to leave the quilt exhibit but we wanted to see other parts of the museum.  There is  a history of African-Americans in the U.S. Armed Forces from the Revolution to the present day.  “A slow Walk to Greatness” is a permanent exhibit that tells the story of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.  Galleries display paintings and sculpture by African-Americans.

Mammy Dolls [date?]
Cuesta included depictions of racial/ethnic stereotypes in her collection

The DuSable Museum was founded by Margaret Taylor Burroughs in 1961.  It moved to the present location in Washington Park, a former Chicago Park District police building, in 1973. A wing was added in 1993.  For more information and to plan your visit go to 
Kiss 1, Kiss 2 by Faith Ringgold, 1993

1 comment:

  1. DH and I went to an exhibit of African-American quilts in the DC area around 2000 and I believe Cuesta was the curator. It was nice to see some traditional quilts in addition to the more improvisational ones.


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