The Heritage Quilters
by Joyce Joines Newman
The Heritage Quilters are a diverse group of women and men from Halifax, Vance, and Warren counties, North Carolina, who organized in 2001, based on their shared belief that quilt-making is one of the most widely known and personally experienced crafts for many North Carolinians. The more than 20 women and men aged 14 to 82 have the mission to support, encourage, and document quilting traditions and activities.
Key to organizing the group were Margaret Bullock and Jereann King (now Johnson). Jereann worked in Durham, NC, and helped launch the African American Quilt Circle in 1997. Jereann has been quilting as long as she can remember. Her interest in textiles and texture were formed during her childhood in Bainbridge, Georgia, where she grew up under a canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss, braiding grass from the fields for play and learning traditional ways from church women and school teachers. When her Durham work ended, Jereann began thinking about a community of quilters close to home, in Warrenton.
Margaret Bullock worked in Warren County Cooperative Extension as a Family and Home Specialist, and for years Margaret and Jereann dreamed about bringing together groups of people who were interested in either writing oral and family histories or promoting quilting. With the encouragement of Leo Kelly, who had organized quilting classes at Vance Granville Community College, and Portia Hawes, a native of Warrenton who had retired from teaching home economics in New York City and returned to her hometown, Jereann planned a gathering to talk about quilts and quilting. Leo and Portia helped tell people about the meeting and distributed flyers. The meeting’s purpose was to talk about quilts and quilt-making and to determine if there was interest in forming a group to hold regular meetings.
The notion of oral histories was folded into the quilt meeting; people were asked to introduce themselves through quilts by bringing a family quilt, a quilt project they were working on, or a quilt story about their involvement with quilting. Ten people attended the first meeting at the Warren County Senior Center, facilitated by Jereann. Mary Terry and Beatrice Richardson shared quilts, and Nina Goode brought quilts made by her mother from feed sacks and old clothes. Jereann photographed each person’s presentation and made an audio recording of the meeting. The group committed to meeting once a month, getting others involved, and teaching and learning from each other.
Seven of those who attended were still active members when the group received the 2012 Community Traditions Award: Ihsan Abdin, Margaret Bullock, Portia Hawes, Cathy Alston-Kearney, Leo Kelly, Jr., Jereann King, and Mary Terry, along with Belinda Alston, Ruth H. Chambers, Wallace Evans, Terri Grady, Earlean Henderson, Connie Kenney, Hollis Larkins, Krista Larkins, Dorothy Luis, Victoria Lynch, Ellen Pankey, Jackie Privet, Wilhelmina Scott-Ratliff, and Louise Spruill.
At their second meeting, Leo Kelly demonstrated how to use a rotary cutter, which was a big deal for the members and for quilting in general. With the capacity to cut multiple layers of cloth, the rotary cutter and mat offered an entirely new approach to quilt-making. By the end of the meeting, Wallace Evans, who had joined the group, Portia, and Mary agreed to teach and to demonstrate quilt patterns and techniques. Victoria Lynch suggested quilting activities and regional quilt shows to attend. A regular feature of the meetings became “Show and Tell,” where members brought quilt projects, patterns, and vintage quilts to share and study. The group formulated its mission statement: “The Heritage Quilters is a diverse group of women and men from Halifax, Vance, and Warren County, whose mission is simply to support, encourage, and document quilting traditions and activities.”
As other members joined, the group’s experiences and talents expanded. Ruth Howard Chambers’ family originated in the Olive Grove community of Warren County, which had a tradition of exceptional quilt-making. Ruth had registered voters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, during the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and she shared her knowledge of those quilters and their community. Gladys Foster-Young, Belinda Alston, and Iris T. Olinger worked in an adult day program, where they taught quilting to their clients. Iris was an experienced quilter with a wealth of quilting techniques and knowledge to share, as was Ellen Pankey, who joined in 2008.
In order to raise awareness of the rich heritage of quilt-making in the area, the Heritage Quilters have implemented various quilt-related activities. In addition to learning from each other, the group attends area quilt shows and lectures. They have staged numerous quilt shows and hosted quilting events. Their first show of members’ work was held in 2002 and was called, “There Always Was a Quilt.” In 2004, their second show was titled, “Making Quilts, Spreading Joy,” followed by “In the Spirit” in 2006, “My Soul Looks Back in Wonder” in 2008, and “Patterns of Our Lives” in 2010. In 2012, the Heritage Quilters hosted two shows: the first regional exhibition of quilts made by men, “3 Men and Their Quilts,” and their regular biennial show, “Quilts and the Heritage of Giving.” They participate in the Ridgeway Cantaloupe Festival (Ridgeway is another community important in the county’s quilt-making tradition), the Warrenton SpringFest, and the Harvest Market.
In partnership with the Warren County Arts Council and the Warren County Memorial Library, they received grants from the North Carolina Arts Council’s Folk/Traditional Arts program to hold two series of quilt documentation days at the library, where quilt-makers from the area were interviewed, and their quilts photographed and documented. The Quilters brought together an array of volunteers from throughout their communities, including group members, local quilting instructors, and other area quilters to staff these documentation days, pick up quilt-makers and bring them to the library, serve refreshments, and do follow-up recordkeeping. The resulting information is housed in the Warren County Memorial Library and is accessible to the public.
The Heritage Quilters group is much more than a quilting club. They have extended the principle of cooperative work, which is the basis of much traditional quilt-making, to an interest in and understanding of community and community building. They created a “giving circle,” a form of philanthropy where a group donates money, time, and talent to a pooled fund and allocates these resources to address community needs and issues. The Heritage Quilters Giving Circle is a member of the Community Investment Network, and the Triangle Community Foundation hosts its fund. The quilters gave their first grant to a Youth Summer Enrichment Program sponsored by a local alumni association to support a summer field trip with the theme, “Healthy Families, Healthy Communities.”
The Heritage Quilters believe that quilts and quilt-making have the power to heal and the power to love, and their goal is to extend that power into their own communities. They have actively sought to contribute to the economic health of the area. In partnership with the Warren County Arts Council, they initiated a Quilt Trail featuring six four-foot square panels of quilts or quilt patterns painted by local artists to draw attention to the exceptional quilt heritage of the area. As part of their educational activities to increase the visibility of the area’s quilt-making, group members make presentations to local school children, teaching geometry and quilting. The group makes lap quilts for residents in nursing homes and shelters.
The Heritage Quilters also host a tour of Warren County historical structures and places for new teachers and school staff. The 2012 day-long tour included the historic main street of Warrenton, the courthouse, the Hendrick house, the John S. Plummer Hook and Ladder Company of black volunteer firemen, the church which housed a Freedman’s School in its basement, and sites in communities near Warrenton. Participants received door prizes provided by area groups including the Heritage Quilters.
In partnership with Preservation Warrenton, the group has used quilts as a backdrop for tours highlighting Warren County’s unique architectural features that have drawn countless visitors to the area. For the 2012 Spring Homes Tour “Architectural Reflections: Building Styles in Warren County, North Carolina,” the three men in the group—Wallace Evans, Leo Kelly, Jr., and Hollis Larkins—gained notoriety for their quilt show, “3 Men and Their Quilts,” which was on display in the Jacob Holt House.
Leo Kelly, Jr. of Henderson is a retired dean who worked for 37 years in continuing education at Vance-Granville Community College. He decided to take a quilting class that he had organized for the college because of his memories of his mother Lucy and paternal grandmother Annie, whose quilting was “by golly by gee.” From instructor Peggy Stocks of Manson, NC, he learned to cut pieces for a block, but it was while he was homebound by a winter storm that closed the college for 16 days that he finally started sewing them together. He loved seeing the pieces form a square, and he was hooked.
Wallace Evans of Henderson, NC, teaches cosmetology at Halifax Community College in Weldon and is master stylist at Renaissance Styles by Wallace in Henderson. Encouraged by Leo Kelly, he also learned to quilt in a class with Peggy Stocks at Vance-Granville Community College and became addicted: “I just do it because I love it. I saw my mother quilting, and it woke up my senses.” He incorporates African and other ethnic fabrics in his quilts and repeats the same fabric from work to work so the people who receive them as gifts can trace the fabric.
Hollis Larkins of Tampa, FL, is a retired senior manager with the U.S. government; he holds an AA degree from San Diego City College, a BA degree from San Diego State University, and a JD degree from the UCLA School of Law. His wife of 44 years is Krista Reavis Larkins, whose family was from the Embro/Marmaduke community of Warren County. Hollis was trained to sew and repair sewing machines while in the US Navy. He began quilting in 2011, and had completed eight quilts by 2012. He favors geometric prints and the colors blue and brown.
More recently, the group successfully petitioned the Warren County Board of Commissioners to designate the county as “a community for quilts, quilting, and quilters.” Next, they petitioned the board to lease to them the historic home of free African American businessman Aaron Hendrick, who operated a livery in Warrenton, to develop as a quilt center and museum to promote Warren County as a tourist destination. This center is intended not only to honor Warren County’s African American citizens, past and present, but to provide a thriving and prosperous economic entity that will support the ongoing and living process of quilt-making.
The energetic enthusiasm of the Heritage Quilters for the inherent values of the quilt-making tradition—community, thrift, and creative expression—and the ways they have used those values as a framework for giving to their communities across boundaries of age or ethnicity continue to nurture their communities’ emotional and economic well-being. They are highly deserving of the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Community Traditions Award.
Joyce Joines Newman grew up mostly in the Brushy Mountains of Wilkes County, playing paperdolls, swinging on grapevines, eating Blackheart cherries and Limbertwig apples, and sleeping under piles of quilts made by her mother and grandmother. She received an MA in 1978 from the Folklore Curriculum at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she began studying quilt-making and documenting quilts. She was lead documenter for the North Carolina Quilt Project, which documented 10,000 quilts statewide, presented in the book North Carolina Quilts. She later earned a BFA from UNC-Greensboro in textiles and art history and an MFA in studio art from East Carolina University, where she currently works. She served two terms as president of the North Carolina Folklore Society, and was a co-editor for Watching TV from the Back of a Fire Truck: Voices from the Hurricane Floyd Flood of 1999.
Original publication citation:
Newman, Joyce Joines. “The Heritage Quilters.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 59.2 (Fall-Winter 2012): 36-42.