Ann Batman and Larry Clinton/Marin History Museum and Sausalito Historical Society
Hidden away in the archives of the Robert W. Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center in Atlanta, Georgia, are two quilts huge in size and import as national treasures. The quilts each measure eight feet by ten. They are of particular fascination to us as they were created in Marin in the late 1940s and early 1950s by an interracial group of Marin City and Sausalito residents.
The group gathered to discuss racial issues and to promote Negro History Month, a precursor to Black History Month celebrated today in the month of February.
Sometime in 1949 Ben Irvin, an architect and muralist who worked in San Francisco, and was a member of the group, had the idea to create a quilt honoring African American history. The group enthusiastically accepted the project and decided on Harriet Tubman as its first subject. They got to work. First came the design, then they needed to raise money for the huge frames needed to hold the quilt plus quilting materials.
Two years later the quilt was complete. It was displayed at Marin City’s 1951 Negro History Week celebration. Next, it traveled to the California State Fair of 1952 and won second prize. Thanks to Ben Irvin, it caught the eye of historian and activist Sue Bailey Thurman, who was a founder of the National Council of Negro Women and the editor of the Africamerican Women’s Journal. She saw great value in the quilt for its artistic excellence and as a way to increase awareness of Black history. Sue Thurman took it on a tour of the East Coast where, among other locations, it was displayed at Tubman’s home in Auburn, New York.
Additional details of the project appear at https://www.americanpopularculture.com/archive/politics/quiltclub.htm:
The History Quilt Club of Marin City and Sausalito met several times a week, working on their creation for almost two years. It wasn’t just the intricate needlecraft that was time consuming: the huge frame had to be assembled and dismantled for each session. And there were supplies to buy — fabric, thread, needles, embellishments. The quilters’ husbands contributed to the project by cooking a special community dinner to raise funds to buy the materials.
Finally, in early 1951, the Harriet Tubman quilt was complete.
The tapestry depicts Tubman holding a rifle, her image larger than life-sized. She’s seen leading a group of slaves north towards freedom. Her clothing is historically authentic; the quilters even used embellishment such as real shoelaces to create her utilitarian work boots.
Over Tubman’s shoulder is the North Star, which she used as a navigation tool while bringing fugitives through the dark night.
The quilting group chose abolitionist Frederick Douglass to be the next subject. Again, they designed the quilt, built the frames and raised money to complete the project. After another two years of effort the quilt was completed, and they again displayed the finished product at Marin City’s Negro History Week in 1953. This time the public was invited to view the women as they worked to put the finishing touches on the quilt.
The Frederick Douglass quilt was an even more ambitious undertaking than the Tubman one.
Using actual photographs as their guide, the quilters created portraits of Douglass, his wife Anna, and William Lloyd Garrison (another leading abolitionist). The tapestry shows Douglass giving a speech at the American Anti-Slavery Society convention.
Both the Harriet Tubman and the Frederick Douglass quilts were purchased in the 1950s by the Howard Thurman Educational Trust Foundation. They were exhibited at the 1965 World’s Fair in New York; toured with the “Afro-American Art Show” of 1968; and were part of the “Freedom Now” exhibit of African American history, art, and culture in the 1970s. The Thurmans later donated the quilts to the Robert W. Woodruff Library.