The story starts in the quilt’s upper left corner, with the tale dusted off from history books of a servant named Hercules rescuing John Harris from a group of Native Americans. It circles to the right, recalling centuries of churches and choirs, doctors and morticians, aviators and educators.
It ends with a block devoted to Hyleas Fountain—Olympic-medal winning athlete, and very much alive. This quilt tells the story of Dauphin County African Americans and their contributions to local, state and national history.
“That’s the story of black folks in the county,” says Carol Spigner as she stands by the quilt, brought out of storage at Fort Hunter. “Well, it’s part of the story.”
Spigner is a founder of the African-American Quilters Gathering of Harrisburg, which produced the quilt for Dauphin County’s 230th anniversary in 2015. It was unveiled on Oct. 7 at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg.
Dauphin County commissioned the quilt, allocating $2,000 in tourism funds to cover costs, to recognize African-American history and bring “multiple layers” to the 230th anniversary celebration, says Assistant Program Director Michelle Hornberger of Dauphin County Parks and Recreation.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much African-American history is in Dauphin County and how important some of that history is,” says Hornberger, citing the quilt block showing Jacob Cumpton spiriting Abraham Lincoln away from Harrisburg following reports of assassins as the future president made his way to Washington, D.C., for his first inauguration.
The quilters “of course” said yes when asked to produce the piece, even though they had only six months, says Spigner. “And then we looked at each other and said, ‘What have we promised?’”
Working with local historian Calobe Jackson, Jr., the quilters went on a journey of discovery. They found names of people and places they had never known. Others chimed in with memories of the people they knew or had heard of growing up. The group of mostly women made sure that women were well represented.
“It’s all pioneering activity,” says Spigner. “It’s all different kinds of firsts, but they’re the kinds of activities that help build a community and build a legacy.”
Something from Nothing
Using a variety of needlecraft techniques—applique, embroidery, patchwork, tiny pieces of lace representing curtains in a rooming house—the quilters each produced blocks devoted to particular subjects.
There is the Grand Review, held in Harrisburg when members of the U.S. Colored Troops were barred from the Grand Review for Union armies in post-Civil War Washington, D.C. There is William Howard Day, the nation’s first black school board president. The Phyllis Wheatley branch of the YWCA and the Forster Street YMCA were major centers of African-American life. LeGree Daniels, a granddaughter of slaves, was appointed by presidents of both parties to serve on the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors.
At the unveiling, some people depicted on the quilt were represented by descendants (and former Middletown mayor Robert Reid, a quilt denizen, was there in the flesh). One block recognizes Carrie L. Boulding, the first African-American woman to own and operate a mortuary, and Millicent Hooper, Pennsylvania’s first licensed black female funeral director.
Hooper “had to work so hard in a field that was, of course, male-dominated and an industry that didn’t always accept minorities and women,” says her daughter-in-law, Angela M. Ulen, supervisor of Hooper Memorial Home. It was “truly an honor” to see Hooper, who ran the business her father founded, on the quilt.
“She’d have been so proud,” says Ulen. “She’d have been elated. She was always known for her top hat and her tails, and I can see her waltzing in and giving a small speech of thank yous to her community.”
Members of the quilters’ group, founded around 2008, “really teach and mentor and coach each other,” says Spigner. She recalls an African-American term, “making something out of nothing.” Slaves received two clothing allocations a year, and, when the clothes were beyond mending, “they used it in any way they could.” Scraps were often sewn into quilts to ward off the cold in cabins.
“It’s a story about survival and really making do with what you have, but it’s also a story about art,” she says. While slaves made utilitarian quilts for themselves, the quilts they made for the slave owners’ homes were often expressive works of art made from high-quality fabrics.
Historians are divided over the theory that slaves used coded quilts to direct slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad, but Spigner doesn’t worry about its truth. It’s known that slaves had to use codes, because “they couldn’t have an open discussion about where they were going.” And it’s known that they needed allies to get from one station to another. Whether or not the theory is true, “it symbolizes those things, and it symbolizes ingenuity.”
“Yes, we used codes,” she says. “Is this the specific kind of codes we used? I don’t know, but it’s part of the way people adapted in order to survive. For me, it doesn’t matter. I don’t take it as gospel. I take it as representative of what people had to do to protect themselves.”
No one planned the quilt’s confluence with the national dialogue over race, oppression and violence, but its appearance is timely.
“We’re at a period where the accomplishments of the past are at a high risk of being withdrawn,” says Spigner. “Registration, voters’ rights, redistricting, courts equating corporations to individuals. All of the things that people in my age group both fought for and began to take advantage of are at some political risk right now.”
With its depiction of people who fought for their rights and the institutions built “to help people survive in difficult situations,” the quilt “represents years of struggle,” says Spigner.
“I hope it travels well,” she says. “I particularly hope that black kids can see it and have an opportunity to begin to put their arms around the fact that this history is long and deep, and they should be really exploring all the opportunities available to them as a result of this history.”
Reflecting on Millicent Hooper’s appearance in the quilt, Ulen agreed that “you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”
“That would still be Millicent’s story to tell, that in order for us to grow as a community, you try to find out as much as you can about the stories from before, and you build stepping stones from there.”
Dauphin County African-American History Quilt is on display at the National Civil War Museum, Feb. 13; Greater Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Harrisburg, Feb. 18; and Tabernacle Baptist Church, Harrisburg, Feb. 28. Call Dauphin County Parks and Recreation, 717-599-5188, for details and an updated schedule of public showings.