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The Freedom Quilting Bee
By Nancy Callahan
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1987 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
From Civil Rights to Patchwork Quilts
On December 9, 1965, Francis X. Walter, a white Episcopal priest and newly appointed head of an Alabama civil rights project, was driving through Wilcox County, deep in the Alabama Black Belt. He was accompanied by Everett Wenrick, a white Episcopal seminarian from the North and fellow civil rights worker.
Father Walter was on a mission to document cases of harassment by whites of blacks who had been involved in the civil rights movement. Because they had demonstrated for their right to vote, countless black families were being thrown off their land. Some were even facing jail terms if they did not pay long-term bank loans that unexpectedly had been declared due. Father Walter was to collect his evidence and turn it in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which would prosecute those whites through newly enacted civil rights legislation.
Venturing through Possum Bend, first settled in the late 1800s but on this occasion not even a speck on the Alabama road map, the twosome came to a dead end and encountered a pig trail, skiffs, and the Alabama River. At a nearby cabin, a clothesline was gaily garbed with three magnificent quilts. Inside was their maker, a lone black woman, at work on yet another.
Long interested in folk art, Walter was caught by the quilts' bold, inventive op art designs. He immediately conceived an idea: the selling of quilts could increase pride and participation among local black women in the civil rights movement. But the seed of his notion took root and flourished far beyond his wildest expectations as the Freedom Quilting Bee, a handicraft cooperative known nationwide.
This is the story of that Bee, a celebration of two decades of the economic independence of black women in one of the poorest and most isolated counties in America. It is not a typical story one might associate with a labor coalition, the women's movement, or a folk-art industry, because the Freedom Quilting Bee is not typical. If anything, it is improbable. And, given a set of circumstances different from the ones that cushioned its beginning, it never would have come into being.
One of only a handful of all-black women's cooperatives in the nation, this unschooled but talented body of quilters has become a source of inspiration to cooperatives everywhere. It also remains as one of the most positive outgrowths ever spawned by the civil rights movement in Alabama.
Late in the 1960s, while still in an embryonic stage, the Freedom Quilting Bee captured the energies and imagination of the New York world of interior design and then sparked a nationwide revival of interest in patchwork quilts. Members have exhibited at the Smithsonian and prestigious folk craft fairs. Their works have been featured in major fashion as well as home design magazines and have been sold through New York's premiere department stores. They have generated a handsome mail-order business and continue to sell through an Eastern co-op affiliate.
But, most of all, the quilters are at work in steady jobs, in their own business, in their own community, providing significant, supplementary incomes for their families. Mostly former fieldhands whose fingers have been callused by decades of cotton chopping begun as early as childhood, the Freedom quilters are skilled artisans and self-styled business executives, who, largely through their own determination, vision, and pride, are keeping aflame an artistic endeavor that extends back in the black culture of Wilcox County for 140 years.
A Heritage of Slavery and Agriculture
To know the Freedom Quilting Bee and the women who have sustained it is to know Wilcox County, since the early 1800s an anchor of agriculture in the Alabama Black Belt, so-called for the rich, dark soil that spurred the multicountied region's economic success.
Almost from the time this geographical zigzag of a county was first settled in south-central Alabama between 1800 and 1810, the black population has vastly outnumbered that of the whites. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, the county was dominated by white plantation owners and worked by black slaves. After slavery times, many of the large plantations were split into smaller, white-owned farms. In some areas, cotton succumbed to soybeans and cattle, more lucrative enterprises requiring less labor, and to pulpwood. As a result, masses of out-of-work blacks moved to the cities, especially in the North, to work. Most who remained stayed on the farms. Some were sharecroppers and others rented from the whites or lived on the land through white charity.
It was a racially segregated life in which the political, economic, social, and cultural mores were clearly dictated by the whites and in their best interests. It was a case of rich versus poor, white versus black, lettered versus unlettered, and those who voted versus those who could not. By the beginning of 1965, black registered voters in Wilcox County were almost nonexistent. Lacking a political voice, black people had no hope of rising above their second-class status.
The Black Belt Becomes Focus of National Civil Rights
As 1965 progressed, though, the civil rights movement peaked in the Alabama Black Belt. Racially generated deaths and community demonstrations occurred. On March 7, or "Bloody Sunday," voting rights marchers in Selma, the seat of Dallas County that touches the north of Wilcox, were beaten and gassed by Alabama troopers and Dallas County deputies.
On March 15 President Lyndon Johnson responded by announcing his plans to submit to Congress a voting rights bill. Then, on March 21–25, Martin Luther King, Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led marchers from Selma, unofficial capital of the Black Belt, to Montgomery, capital of Alabama, to campaign for black voting rights. For almost half a year, the Black Belt was the national focus for black civil rights and figured daily in major headlines as well as on nightly radio and television network news.
Church Groups Form Selma Inter-religious Project
Finally, on August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. But, in the aftermath of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, several participating religious groups wanted to keep alive the spirit of the movement in a tangible way. It was a time in national politics of great optimism. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations had set the stage for a proliferation of private civil rights groups at the community level; leaders and followers were rising from the tiniest and most backwoods of Southern hamlets. A beehive network had been started between Southern blacks and white liberals from the North; between local civil rights groups and the federal government. Comings and goings were on a grand scale and were grounded in hope.
What resulted was the Selma Inter-religious Project (SIP), a denominational coalition that sought to continue the relationship molded during the Selma-to-Montgomery march by representatives of those faiths as well as of Black Belt civil rights activities. The four national sponsors were the Synagogue Council of America and divisions of the National Catholic Conference for Inter-racial Justice, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Unitarian-Universalist Association. Other member affiliates were units within the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the United Church of Christ, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and "a denomination which prefers to remain anonymous."
Priest Heads Selma Project
Named executive director of the Selma Inter-religious Project was Reverend Francis X. Walter, an Alabama native son who most recently had been priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church, in Jersey City, New Jersey. He later recounted his coming back to Alabama on December 6, 1965, in the first issue of his S.I.P. Newsletter, a vehicle through which he communicated with national proponents of Black Belt civil rights. "Go to Selma," he was told by a representative of the National Council of Churches of Christ. "Meet the Episcopal seminarian, Jon Daniels. He'll introduce you around. Ask questions and look. See if the people want a continued ministry representing the religious groups. See if you think you are the man to do it."
The call came on July 28, 1965, to Decatur, a Tennessee River city in North Alabama, where Father Walter was doing summer supply work for three churches. Less than a month after the call, he was in Selma, talking about the project with the local people and armed with a civil rights commitment that had begun while he was a teenager in Mobile. His host was absent, for Jonathan M. Daniels, twenty-seven, of Keene, New Hampshire, was in jail. A white student at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he had heeded the call from Dr. King for civil rights volunteers to come to the Black Belt. Receiving seminary permission to study by correspondence, he had arrived at Selma in March to work for understanding between the area's black and white Christians. He was supported financially and in spirit by the Atlanta-based Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity.
Living in a Selma black-housing project, Daniels took part in the March demonstrations there and in voting rights organizing in nearby Lowndes County. By August he was planning a return to Cambridge. But, on the 15th, he was arrested in the Lowndes County town of Fort Deposit at the end of a demonstration. He had not been demonstrating, but simply passing out literature encouraging blacks to register to vote. Regardless, he was arrested, then transferred to a jail in Hayneville, a country town of 900, forty miles southeast of Selma. Others arrested and imprisoned in that town with him were three young black women; a white Catholic priest from Chicago, Father James Morrisroe; and a young black man named Stokely Carmichael, who was head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
After arriving in Selma, the brown-haired, bespectacled Father Walter went to Hayneville to meet and visit with Daniels and the others who were behind bars. He was accompanied by a black Episcopal priest, on the staff of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, who had brought bail money for Daniels. However, the group in jail decided that either all or none would be released on bail. There was not enough money for all of them, so Daniels chose to remain in confinement. On August 21, two days after the visit, the prisoners were released under curious circumstances. The sheriff would not allow them to call Selma for transportation, and he denied their request to stay at the jail. They were forced away from the courthouse by threats.
On earlier occasions, the owner of The Cash Store, a grocery 500 yards from the courthouse, had allowed the activists to buy food. That was the only place in town where they felt safe. So they went there. The owner was absent, but Tom Coleman, a white special deputy in his early fifties who was a Highway Department engineer, was inside behind a dark screen door. As the group approached the store, he pushed the door open and fired an automatic shotgun. Daniels was killed and Father Morrisroe was seriously injured.
An all-white Hayneville jury found Coleman not guilty of slaying Daniels and wounding Father Morrisroe. The owner of The Cash Store stayed out of the county at least until after the trial. Later, a Montgomery federal judge ruled that the arrest of the young churchman and his associates had been illegal.
Immediately after the killing, Father Walter remained in Selma temporarily and unofficially to aid with telephone calls and secretarial work kindled by the tragedy. Upon his return to Decatur, he elected to stay in Alabama and work against racism.
Father Walter's Background
Francis Xavier Walter was born on December 22, 1932, in Mobile, where he grew up. In 1950 he entered Spring Hill College, a Catholic institution two blocks from his home. In four years, he received his bachelor of arts degree and was accepted by St. Luke's Episcopal Seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, to study for the priesthood. In 1957 he received his degree in divinity, was ordained as a priest, and spent the next two years as a fellow and tutor at General Theological Seminary, in New York City.
One of his subsequent appointments was as rector of St. James' Church, in Eufaula, Alabama, but he left there in 1961 and was refused work in Alabama by the bishop of the Episcopal church in the state because of his interpretation of the gospel with regard to racism. From 1963 until the summer of 1965, he was with Grace Church, in Jersey City.
The murder of Jonathan Daniels served as a catalyst that goaded the young priest to accept a leadership role in civil rights, for the death produced nationwide resentment toward the social inequities of the Black Belt.
When called back to Alabama, Father Walter had just left a ghetto church near the Jersey City waterfront. A fashionable, white Episcopal parish of the 1840s, by the 1960s the congregation was almost entirely black and Puerto Rican, with only a handful of whites. A living textbook in racial problems and minority attitudes, Grace Church taught Father Walter about blacks, especially the young ones, the sons and daughters of Southern parents, who were thoroughly ashamed of their background when the massive voting rights campaign had not even surfaced. According to Father Walter,
If the young blacks in that congregation wanted to insult somebody, fighting words, at least of a milder sort, were, "Your mama eat turnip greens," or "biscuits" or some such. They were deeply ashamed of being black. They didn't have any sense of racial pride and it was soon apparent that they couldn't really be whole individuals, couldn't have a whole individual psyche until they were proud of their race, of their people.
The sit-in movement in the South had an electric effect in the ghettos. People told me that when they moved up North formerly, they hid the fact that they had moved up. They didn't want to be looked upon as ghetto newcomers.
But right after the sit-ins of '59 and '60, people would proudly announce when they got into the ghetto that they had just arrived from Alabama or Mississippi, because everybody was saying, "Man, you one of those Freedom Riders?" And people would invent a civil rights past for themselves if they didn't have one. "Yeah, we're from Alabama. We was in that mess." Big heroes on the block, whereas a couple of years before, they would hide their arrival: "Oh, we've been up here for years, man."
One time we had a church social function and I cooked biscuits. The girls and boys really made fun of me because I knew how to make biscuits and because I would even associate myself with a biscuit. I felt a great sense of tragedy and a foreboding that this nation was going to pay for that.
They used to see Tarzan movies downtown and that was their only connection with Africa—a white man lording it over a bunch of people made up with black face jumping around a movie set in loin cloth. That also was their view of nature, which is another thing: They hated the green and living world and they were afraid of it, afraid even of a cow. They were ghetto kids.
I once showed a movie at Grace Church called Anglican Odyssey. It was about the different Anglican churches in the world. The sisters who worked there told me, "You can't show this movie." There were scenes of natives in the movie. The sisters said, "The kids just couldn't bear to see people of their own skin color in native dress. It would be so threatening that they would freak out."
I didn't believe the sisters and was doubly determined to force them to have a good image of themselves by showing the movie. The church school assembly came apart. The children went crazy, jumped up and down on the pews and fell over backwards, ran around the church and screamed. It was hysterical laughter. But it came from their deep shame at seeing black people in native costume, and to me, it was heartbreaking.
I learned before I came back to the South what terrible psychic damage had been done to black people, and I was not at all surprised when Stokely Carmichael said, "Black Power." It was a necessity, almost.
So, as he approached his thirty-third birthday, Francis Walter exchanged his work with a ghetto church in Jersey City for a position as head of a religious group that sought to help underprivileged people in the Black Belt. Given the full blessings of the Diocese of Newark, under whose jurisdiction he had been serving as a priest, Father Walter began his new work on October 1, 1965.
Six months after the advent of his Alabama homecoming, this new man in the movement would be plagued with his first major personal and professional setback: the Episcopal bishop of Alabama would refuse to give him a license to officiate in the state as a priest, and his attempts to communicate with the diocese would be declined. Other obstacles would come in time. It would take him and his wife four years to adopt a baby because of punitive measures taken by the bishop, who claimed the head of the Selma Project's work with civil rights made him unfit for fatherhood. Eventually, the Walters would adopt a daughter and son: Margaret, born in 1969; and Andrew, born in 1971.
Excerpted from The Freedom Quilting Bee by Nancy Callahan. Copyright © 1987 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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