Slave Quilts and the Human Spirit

One week ago today I stood on the floor of an original slave cabin, a 12×30 brick dwelling where African slaves labored, lived, and died in bondage on Boone Hall Plantation. Just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, “Slave Street” features nine original brick structures situated between the 10,000 square foot Boone mansion and the famous “Avenue of Oaks,” where trees planted in 1743 flank the estate entrance.


During our plantation tour, I was surprised to see slave quarters featured so prominently on the front lawn. But I learned that slave houses (as well as oak alleys) represented a sign of wealth, not shame.  Placement at the front of the estate was a symbol of the plantation owner’s social status. I also learned that brick slave dwellings were rare, that the brick cabins on Slave Street, in particular, were reserved for the “house slaves.” Less coveted wooden shacks were erected behind the mansion. It was there, in the wooden shacks, that the “field slaves” lived. By 1850, Boone Hall was using 85 slaves to support its brick production and other agricultural endeavors.

One blog cannot begin do justice to the stories of pain, suffering, and human degradation that these plantation acres represent.  I could not, even if I tried, scratch the surface of the trauma and loss that mark the walls of these primitive cabins. But one aspect of our tour touched my heart in ways that I did not expect. I have carried this piece home with me as I step back into my life of privilege and comfort. It is something my heart cannot forget, and in ways I do not yet know in full, it has changed me.  I am learning more and more that it is through stories, and even more so through embodied stories, that our understanding of and solidarity with human suffering is deepened. Touching the walls of these dwellings, feeling the rough brick where the fingerprints of 10-year-old slave children live on immortal, sensing the heat and color and sounds of plantation farm life has seared my heart and psyche in a way that history books could not.

It was, specifically, in cabin two where I found myself in tears, unable to move, aware that if the dam burst I could not contain the flow of sorrow. At the same time, as a mother, I sensed a warm connection to the women who had labored to turn these cabins into homes. I wanted to know them. I wanted to hear their stories of suffering, their stories of triumph.  And there, in cabin two, I caught a glimpse. Hanging on the wall were two patchwork quilts, handmade by slave women. Below is the narrative affixed to the quilt display:

The Slaves used their African designs in the applique quilts that they made and the sense of color and style in their pieced quilts was also inspired by African tradition. A slave might be given a blanket once every three years, quilts were a necessity. These women knew from their mothers how to make vegetable dyes and could turn rough slave cloth into every color of the rainbow. They used worn clothes and scraps from the mistress of the house. Few of these quilts survived, they were used until they wore out. As the abolitionist movement grew in the north quilts were sold to raise money for the abolitionist cause. The store that some patterns in quilts were used to pass secret messages in the underground railroad network remains uncertain, however the legend has now become part of American history.

quilt wall

I am, and long have been, a lover of quilts. I cherish the memory of my friend Trish covering me in a quilt one night as I slept at her family’s home. I was in a season of heartbreak. “The heaviness of the quilt will be good for you,” she whispered as she covered my weary body.  Quilts, afghans, and handmade coverings are gifts that bind generations of families and friends. My husband’s maternal grandmother (Alma) stitched a quilt for us as a wedding gift and has made quilts for each of our children. My aunt Clara made a quilt for my son’s birth, my sister Judy made one for my daughter, and both my husband and I have afghans crocheted by our paternal grandmothers (Grace and Gwen). We often think of preparing meals as the ultimate gift of comfort. But preparing a warm bed, creating a place to rest one’s bones at the end of the day, runs a close second in offering nurturing hospitality. It is why, in our many family moves, I have followed the advice of my mother: “Before anything else, set up the beds.”

The tradition of women crafting quilts, afghans, and the like spans across generations, oceans, race, and socio-economic class. I am no seamstress, but the instinct to make a bed is embedded in my mama bear heart. I recall my own delight in choosing bedding for my babies as I prepared their nurseries. For my son, it was a Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star comforter with blues and  yellows. For my daughter, a floral patchwork quilt in pinks, lavender, and greens. These slave women, who literally had no physical possessions, felt the same desire to provide their loved ones with a soft place to land and warm covering at day’s end. In this, we share a heart to nurture. My tears on Slave Street were sparked, in part, by the human spirit to generate warmth, comfort, and softness even in the starkest of conditions.

Even more so, my tears arose in recognizing the longing to create beauty. As I admired the patterns and colors in these slave quilts, I marveled at the ingenuity and determination to create various fabric colors using plant dye.  That traditions of crafting these beautiful pieces made their way across the ocean, that traditions survived such brutal conditions and found new life in scraps discarded by plantation mistresses, that traditions traveled the distance from the hands and fingers of grandmothers in Africa to mothers and daughters and babies in colonial South Carolina feels like nothing short of a miracle. To me, it sings of human dignity. It echoes the spirit and heart of grannies and mothers and women in circles to create beauty in the midst of the darkest evil.

I will not look at a quilt in quite the same way again.  I will remember the humanity that binds us, the instinct to survive, to nurture, to borrow color from the earth and turn it into artistry. slave bedI honor the women who turned captive dwellings into homes and in this way lessened the burden and suffering of those in their care. I will not take for granted the warmth of my bed, blankets for my children, or the spirit of the grandmothers who have blessed us with their handiwork.

Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. Proverbs 31:31









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