A new exhibition at the National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce stitches together the history of military trailblazer Col. Charles Young.
“The quilts are just spectacular and jumping off the wall, singing their own song and telling the story of Col. Young’s life,” said Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi, who assembled the show.
“Yours For Race and Country: Reflections on the Life of Colonel Charles Young,” is a collection of 33 quilts created by the Women of Color Quilters Network and Friends, made up of quilters from all over the country.
Col. Charles Young, born in 1864 and the son of Kentucky slaves, started the first military training program for African-Americans at Wilberforce University in the late 1890s.
The third African-American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Young was also the first African-American U.S. park superintendent serving in Sequoia National Park. He later served as a military attache in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Liberia.
“You’ve never seen quilts like these before, these are not our grandmother’s quilts,” Hadley Drodge, assistant curator at the museum said. “These are stories, they are works of art and they are complex compositions that use textiles as a medium.”
The narrative quilts are a history lesson captured in fabric.
“Giant Among the Sequoias,” a quilt created by Oregon artist Tierney Davis Hogan, is a re-creation of a forest scene made from recycled batik fabric scraps. In the center, an image of Young is stitched into the largest tree, keeping watch over the park.
“I love that because it’s quite a twist,” Mazloomi said. “It’s not necessarily a narrative quilt but it is a modern quilt in geometric form and it goes on to tell a story about his work in Sequoia Park.”
Mazloomi, an internationally known West Chester quilt artist, author and historian, founded the quilters network in 1985 with 1,700 members. Today, the group is made up of less than 500 men and women across the country with an average age between 72 to 74. The oldest member is almost 100.
April Shipp, a Michigan artist, is known for using a collage technique to create faces in cloth, Mazloomi said. Her quilt, “Behind Every Great Man: Portrait of Ada Mills Young,” depicts Young’s wife in white silk dupioni wedding dress.
Shipp’s artist statement describes choosing the “Double Wedding Ring” quilt block for the background of the quilt and using reproduction fabrics from the 20th century. “I needed to create something pretty for Miss Ada.”
Mazloomi describes a three-dimensional quilt created by Texas quilt artist Carolyn Crump as “off the charts.” The piece, entitled, “The Game Changer,” portrays Young while posted at Fort Duchesne, Utah.
“It’s absolutely exquisite. It’s a technique few people use in quilting,” Mazloomi said. “It’s constructed of several layers of quilts on top of each other to give that three-dimensional look. It’s quite extraordinary.”
The exhibit is making its debut at the museum in Wilberforce and will travel for two years after it concludes in August.
Last year President Donald Trump signed into law the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act establishing a commission to plan activities to commemorate the anniversary.
Celebrating Young’s life goes hand in hand with the special year in African-American history — the 400th year since the first documented arrival of Africans to English colonies at Point Comfort, Va. in 1619, said Mazloomi.
“Quilts say so much, they are no different than a historic artifact,” Mazloomi said. “People study them from hundreds of years ago to get a glimpse into people’s lives, the history of our country and the timbre of the times.”