Friday, September 26, 2008

“Underground Railroad Quilts” lecture

I attended an amazing lecture last night in Duvall. This was the first lecture in the Duvall Cultural Commission fall lecture series. Ted Hutchinson was our speaker or perhaps more accurately our "griot" (he described griot as an African word for the town storyteller and keeper of the oral tradition). Using a seemingly effortless combination of storytelling and song I learned the symbolism behind several very familiar block patterns as communication tools during the American history of slavery.

Initially in the lecture I was irritated not to have a working pen. I quickly realized that this wasn't a lecture to take notes in however. This was a lecture to absorb.

Hutchinson had three sampler quilts that have been made for him from various churches or people inspired by his presentation. The quilt in the photo immediately above was made for him in one week after hearing his story. Note this block from the sampler quilt that helps explain each block as a communication tool:

Even that above key doesn't really capture the full explaination; including down to the use of the dominant color in some of the blocks to convey meaning.

As the story goes; these quilts were made by slaves for their masters. Specific quilts were hung out by the house slaves for airing depending on what needed to be communicated to the other slaves.

It is too bad that when they teach in school about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad they don't include the stories of these quilts. Or about how Harriet Tubman had narcolepsy due to a particularly bad beating when she was younger; causing her on occasion to drop at potentially unfortunate times while she was trying to lead others to freedom.

While I can post these quilt photos and talk about the stories of the blocks as Hutchinson told them to me; the part I can't capture very well is all the other tangents of American history that were being rapidly exchanged during this lecture.

One of the stories I was able to remember and look up when I got home was regarding Ebo Landing.

There was another story regarding a demonstration against building on a fairly large burial site. Since I can't hope to remember that story correctly; this is a great article regarding cemetery style and land use ownership confusion in the Charleston area.

Ted Hutchinson is 78 years old. He is American born and grew up in Harlem. It wasn't until his wife needed an idea for a Master's project while they were living in Spokane that he started immersing himself in this amazing history.

Myself and maybe a couple other attendees were probably the only handful that had not been through at a minimum either WWII, the Vietnam War, and possibly most importantly the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

I was somewhat surprised when the Civil Rights movement came up; only it so easily blended in it was sort of amazing. The subject came up regarding how traditional (and often religious) songs that were altered for the 60s purposes. In about a 2 - 3 minute discussion I got an insight into that time period that I am not sure I have ever felt or understood despite the movies I have seen and the history I have read.

Ted Hutchinson said if you have a story to tell be sure to do it before you die. And he certainly has a story.

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