Quilting/ patchwork, Sewing

My Underground Railroad Story: The Patchwork Apron

The things we see with our eyes influence us even when we are not conscious of them. I saw a picture of my grandmother wearing a patchworked apron a few years ago while looking through my grandfather’s scrapbooks. The apron was improvised, meaning the pattern was incomplete. Grandma clearly used whatever fabric she had on hand to make her apron. The pattern is one that attracts my eye wherever I see it. The pinwheel or bowtie depending on how the pieces are arranged. I see it used a lot in the Nigerian Adire cloth and also in Ghana’s Kente. I love it.

Grandma Arelia in her patchwork apron with Grandpa Clarence possing in front of their newly purchased homestead in Niles, Michigan.

Anyhow a friend from work asked me to work with her on an Underground Railroad Sampler Quilt. I had actually bought the book Underground Railroad Sampler by Eleanor Burns and Sue Bouchard years ago as a college student. I had always wanted to make a quilt. In fact, I had only ever owned one traditionally made quilt which was gifted to me from a teacher in high school. I have had it now for 17years and still adore it.

Scrappy quilt gifted to me by a teacher in high school

This was the perfect opportunity to revisit my quilting dream. In fact, I even felt compelled to sew a little bit more on the Working Woman’s quilt I started about 5 years ago and never finished. I have sewed more blocks together so it’s getting closer to the finish line.

The first block we decided to make was Flying Geese. I tried to follow the directions but as usual, something went awry and I loved it. I have just accepted the fact that this haphazard, improvised way is “my way”. It is the “African American way”. This look of colorful, high contrast, asymmetry is characteristic of African American fiber art. I am learning through experience this has nothing to do with access to resources. At least in my case. I can go out and buy a bunch of matchy, matchy material and still end up chopping and mixing it all up. My eye, my soul has got to have it this way.

I cut up a shirt my sister gave me for my birthday back in 2003. I could never fit it but loved the fabric. I also used one of my old button-down black work shirt remnants and a pillowcase. With this, I was able to construct 7 Flying Geese blocks that are almost 12 inches but not really. What to do with these?

I decided to turn the blocks into an apron like my grandma’s. As with any project of mines I had to add my touch. I used my trademark irregular running and chain stitches.


The apron strings are a weaving sample I recently made using the simple warp float technique. You will see me do this again as I really love the result.

This experience has not been all rosy. For the first time, I actually began reading the book Underground Railroad Sampler and was very turned off by the racist language used.

This book has nice technical information for constructing beautiful traditional quilts and gives a fairytale-like narrative of people escaping their oppressors. Each quilt has a story about how a quilt may have helped an oppressed individual get away. Unfortunately, the book repeatedly uses racist language in each story. The author begins the tale by sharing that people leaving bondage called themselves “passengers” on the Underground Railroad yet this respectable language is soon forgotten throughout the rest of the book.

African Americans are repeatedly referred to as “Slaves” and “fugitives” in contrast to dignified terms used for heartless oppressors who are referred to as “slaveholders”, “slave owner” or “plantation owners”. The author conspicuously describes “blacks” as the slaves but does not describe “whites” as the enslavers. How do you leave out the foundational premise of the entire system? There is no race in racism without mentioning both competing parties. The dominant white enslaver overtook the black/brown enslaved. I know it’s embarrassing and shameful to win a race for resources and wealth by oppressing people based upon something as trivial as skin color. But that’s our history. It just is. Let God sort it all out. We all have a choice to move forward and be made whole with our salvation through Christ.

“…, Let my people go, that they may serve me” Exodus 9:1 God never refers to His “people” as slaves. God does not make slaves. We cannot follow God’s command to love if we are still referring to people as chattel. This book needs revision.

Alas, my own grandmother, Arelia Hodges was the one who had to reteach me my history. One day she began to tell me about her grandfather and his siblings when I, about 8 years old interrupted with, “Were they slaves?!” Grandma was noticeably upset. She said, “No!, they were your relatives.” “They are your folks.” She was right. We were and still are people. And yes “white” PEOPLE enslaved “black” PEOPLE with laws and a corrupted court system. It is our history and we must acknowledge and accept this in order to move forward in a healthy way.

As for the Underground Railroad narrative, it’s not really “my” story. We stuck it out and remained in the South through slavery and Jim Crow, both my maternal and paternal sides. My family as with most African Americans stayed in the South until an opportunity presented itself and by the grace of God, some of us made it past the snares. Both sides of my family moved north and took factory work in the 1950s. My grandfather, Clarence Hodges used factory wages and military benefits to put himself through college at the University of Notre Dame. He was only its 2nd black man to graduate. I am the 3rd generation in my family to graduate college because my ancestors never forgot that they were people. As for my freedom. I just made it over myself sending in my last mortgage payment in December 2018. I am officially debt free. GLORY TO GOD. This is my Underground Railroad fairytale.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s