Passing Down the Art and Tradition of Quilting from our Ancestors

Passing Down the Art and Tradition of Quilting from our Ancestors

Quilting is an art that has no boundaries. You can express whatever you would like. If you are interested in your family history, you could sew a quilt that tells that story. If you are excited about the community you live in, you can express that too. There are endless possibilities in putting a quilt together.

 Quilts are also powerful tools of communication.

Two years ago, I attended a presentation on quilt codes used in the Underground Railroad by fellow community member and retired educator Dr. Blanche Brownley. I learned that day that enslaved people used quilts as a communication tool for freedom. The different patterns and symbols sewn into the fabric were instructions to guide enslaved people to freedom safely. The breakdown of these codes was really meaningful to me in understanding my ancestral history.

After the presentation, Dr. Brownley and I met with the Martha’s Table team regularly to plan what a quilting group would look like at Martha’s Table. We wanted to create a space of intention that would bring people together from all walks of life to learn about the art of quilting while also using a historical lens to understand our African American roots. We named this group the Quilt Corner. We began working on a community quilt recently presented to Martha’s Table in November 2022 at Martha’s Table’s Annual Harvest Dinner. We named this quilt the Log Cabin Community Quilt. 

This community quilt is now hanging up in Martha’s Table’s lobby at their Southeast location and is the first one completed by Quilt Corner. It comprises the Log Cabin pattern using over 20 12-inch squares. We chose the Log Cabin pattern characterized by the dark and light motif on each square. We wanted to honor our African American history by uplifting the message of safety and support that the Log Cabin pattern represents. As we came together in fellowship to sew this beautiful quilt, we remembered Harriet Tubman, William Still, and Frederick Douglas, who equally promoted the Underground Railroad and dedicated their lives to ensuring secure paths to freedom for enslaved people. We wanted to carry on their legacy by showing light and positivity for our community today in Anacostia. We want our community to know we are looking out for each other like our ancestors looked out for us.


I’m excited about the continuation and growth of this phenomenal group. Anyone is welcome to participate in the Quilt Corner. We want people to come with excitement and curiosity to learn. It’s no easy thing to quilt. The number one thing I always tell people is patience because you’ll make mistakes, especially if you’ve never put a needle and thread together, used a sewing machine, or cut out a pattern. However, with the assistance of the supportive community we have established here, you can learn how to do these things at your own pace. That’s how I learned and found my passion for quilting, and I want to empower others to partake in this unique and historical art form.

To register for the Quilt Corner, click here.

About the Author:
Ms. Charlene Hursey is a retired educator who has lived in Ward 8 for over 20 years. She is an active community member participating in the Seasoned Seniors at Fort Stanton Recreation Center and several Martha’s Table groups, including the Community Advisory Council, Changemakers Book Club, and Quilter’s Corner. She’s a quilting enthusiast and encourages everyone of age and skill levels to come and check it out!

3 New comments

Maxine Morgan | Reply

Ms. Hursey. This is an informative article about the pleasurable benefits of quilting. Whether or not you believe the quilt codes, an Underground Railroad, as well as a Log Cabin quilt should be a part of the African American quilt collection. Keep the art alive!

Louis Carter Jr | Reply

Good Day, I am interested! In learning more about making Quilts. I remember when my grandmother made them I would watch her and help give them to family and friends.

Jacquelyn H. | Reply

Wonderful article sharing your experience of quilts and Quilt Corner, Ms. Charlene!

As a participant at Quilter’s Corner, I, too, enjoy learning and experiencing how certain quilts were used as communication during the Underground Railroad. Even those who find this hard to accept must acknowledge that throughout the history of quilting in America, some would say since the Pioneers ventured west, the quilt patterns that women devised and stitched expressed (important) events and features of their lives.

Broken Dishes, Next Door Neighbor, Double Wedding Ring — these were not mundane, happenstance names or events. Broken dishes on the oxen-drawn, bumpy trek to the west was a source of loss and great disappointment and also a message of warning to those who came after. Next Door Neighbor and Double Wedding Ring were equally significant features of pioneer life and communicated much more about the pioneers’ struggles, joys, and survival than the geometric patterns that women devised and patched together.

Those who understood the patterns could appreciate the significance of the quilt and the message communicated, and perhaps more enjoy the beauty and comfort of the quilt itself. Through my own limited research, I’ve come to the humble opinion that throughout history, from the earliest discovery of quilted clothing on African pharaohs, quilts were always “saying something.”

The original intent of the messages communicated by the quiltmaker, as with any medium of communication or art, is then experienced and interpreted as empathy, shared joy, a well-timed warning, or subtle instructions.

Thank you, Ms. Charlene for your insightful, warm message and for your work at Quilt Corner!

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