Saturday, July 2, 2016

Marin City Negro History Club's Portrait Quilts

During the early 1950s women in Marin County, California celebrated African-American history by making a pair of large quilts portraying Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

Harriet Tubman
Ben Irvin and the Negro History Club of Marin City and Sausalito, 1951
96" x 120"
Robert Woodruff Library Collection.

Ben Irvin, a San Francisco architect and later head of the Sausalito Arts Center, drew the designs. The first was Harriet Tubman. 

 1885 photograph of Tubman 

Members of the Negro History Club of Marin City and Sausalito stitched Irwin's ideas into a wall hanging that was 8 by 10 feet. Some of the artists: Birdie Smith, Martha Johnson, Essie McKee, Betty DePrado, Catherine Holland, Margaret and Billie Jo Fuslier, Bernice Vissman, Detia Wright, Florence Shandeling, and Claudia Beagerie.

Marin City was a relatively new place in 1950, a shipyard community that grew up in World War II just north of San Francisco. After the boom days people continued to live in government housing in an ethnically mixed community. 

Jet Magazine published a photo of the Tubman quilt in 1952, noting it was entered in the California State Fair.
"The bed cover is the handiwork of an interracial women's group....The first of a series of embroidered works showing prominent Negro leaders."

Frederick Douglass
Ben Irvin and the Negro History Club of Marin City and Sausalito, 1953
96" x 120"
Robert Woodruff Library Collection.

The group's second quilt, also drawn by Irvin, showed Frederick Douglass addressing an Anti-Slavery Society Convention in Nantuckett in 1841.

Anna Murray Douglass listens to her husband on the left and Abolitionist newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison is at right.

Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman (1903-1996)

Sue Bailey Thurman from San Francisco showed the quilts around the country in the 1950s. They were exhibited in the 1970s in Marin County and postcards made of them. I can remember what an inspiration they were to textile artists using cloth to create pictorial images. 

Sue Bailey Thurman was an author, editor and teacher interested in Black history.  She wrote newspaper articles including  "Pioneers of Negro Origin in California" and married theologian Howard Thurman.

She donated both quilts to Emory University's Robert Woodruff Library in Atlanta. 
Read more about the quilts here:


Nann said...

The portrait quilts look so contemporary! Thanks for posting the story. (I clicked on the link and read the entire account.)

suzanne said...

What a wonderful tribute! What excellent work! Thanks for showing this to us.

Teri said...

Fascinating story of these impressive quilts honoring two Americans who contributed so much in our nation's history. Thank you for sharing; the linked article was excellent as well!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this rich and inspiring story. I will share with others.