×

In Canaan, Quilts Depict African-American Lives and History

  • On Aug. 31, 2018, volunteer John Bergeron, of Canaan, N.H., hangs one of the quilts on display as part of the "And Still We Rise" exhibit at the Canaan Meeting House in Canaan, N.H., running from Sept. 1 until Oct. 14, 2018. The show has been touring the country under the coordination of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Cincinnati Art Museum. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Connie Horne's quilt "General George Washington Welcomes the Services of Slaves and Free Blacks in the Army," left, and Margene G. May's "Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and Sr." are amongst 34 works on display as part of the traveling show "And Still We Rise" at the Canaan Meeting House in Canaan, N.H., on Aug. 31, 2018. The show is running from Sept. 1 until Oct. 14, 2018.

  • Canaan, N.H., town historian Donna Zani-Dunkerton talks about the history of Noyes Academy while the exhibit "And Still We Rise" is being hung at the Canaan Meeting House in Canaan, N.H., on Aug. 31, 2018. Behind Zani-Dunkerton is Mikel Wells’ 1999 painting, "Destruction of Noyes Academy." (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A detail from Bisa Butler's quilt "'42' Dedicated to Jackie Robinson," at the "And Still We Rise" exhibit at the Canaan Meeting House in Canaan, N.H., running from Sept. 1 until Oct. 14, 2018.

  • Tom Milligan, of Canaan, N.H., looks at the show "And Still We Rise" exhibit at the Canaan Street Meetinghouse in Canaan, N.H., on Aug. 31, 2018. Milligan was walking by with friends and they stopped by to look as the show was being hung. The show is up through Oct. 14. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A detail from Sharon Kerry-Harlan's "United," at the "And Still We Rise" exhibit at the Canaan Meeting House in Canaan, N.H., running from Sept. 1 until Oct. 14, 2018.



For the Valley News
Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Canaan — Appraising the newly hung exhibition in the Friday afternoon light, Donna Zani-Dunkerton felt drawn to a particular quilt on which a leaning tree sprouted old photographs instead of leaves. Its tangled roots, on close inspection, turned out to be tightly folded currency, and beside the tree, not in shade but stitched on a rectangle of soft yellow, was a well-dressed woman with a cool gaze.

Zani-Dunkerton reached out and nearly touched the woman’s plush aubergine dress with its scalloped neckline before stopping herself. Something more than a tactile urge connected them, though: Both women are keepers of a disquieting history.

The quilt, one of 44 handcrafted quilts now on display concurrently at the Canaan Street Meeting House and the Mariposa Museum in Peterborough, N.H., commemorates the work of Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist who documented and publicized the lynchings of African-American men in the late 1800s. Sewn by Sauda Zahra of Durham, N.C., the quilt combines high-tech and time-honored techniques and, like many quilts in the collection, marries the beautiful with the disturbing.

“I think it’s just stunning,” said Zani-Dunkerton, who traces her family history back to a portion of the Underground Railroad that ran through her hometown, and to a school called Noyes Academy that attempted integration two decades before the courts ordered it.

A replica of the ill-fated school now sits across the street from the meeting house, where abolitionists first voted to charter the school and where townspeople later plotted to drive out the African-American population. Brown ducks peck the sand on a comma of shoreline beside the schoolhouse, and potted petunias bloom in the back. Visually, there could hardly be a better backdrop for the exhibition, which is on the first leg of the New England portion of its national tour. The historic connection adds another layer of interest.

On display through Oct. 14, the exhibition, titled “And Still We Rise,” features the work of the Women of Color Quilters Network and tells the story of the African-American experience, starting with the arrival of the first slaves in the early 1600s. The show was organized by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Cincinnati Art Museum.

Arranged chronologically, the quilts depict both celebrated milestones and lesser known faces and facts, employing a variety of techniques, materials and aesthetics. Jesse Owens is stitched mid-stride inside a geometric border. The Freedom Riders are commemorated in squares of newsprint atop blocks of blood-red fabric. Abolitionist Levi Coffin is immortalized with vivid colors and patterns that call to mind traditional African clothing. Poet Phyllis Wheatley sits writing, her crinkled bonnet like a thought cloud above her pensive features.

Like quilts themselves, the exhibition originates from many sources and has many points of intersection.

Carolyn Mazloomi, a retired aerospace engineer who founded the Women of Color Quilters Network in 1985, came to appreciate the rich tradition of narrative quilt-making not long after she took up the craft of quilting. She loved geometric patchwork quilts but struggled to get the seams just right. “As an engineer, that just really throws me off and gets me all upset,” Mazloomi said in a telephone interview from her home in West Chester, Ohio. “So I gave them up and started making narrative quilts.”

At around the same time, Mazloomi began researching quilts and quilt history and writing books about the time-honored craft. She started the quilters network as a way of preserving the quilting tradition in the African-American community by disseminating information, organizing classes and workshops around the world and showcasing members’ work. She planned the current exhibit to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the first slave ships to come to America.

“African-Americans have contributed a lot positively to America … I wanted to talk about that history and make it a visual history to let people know some of the highlights of our culture and some of the contributions we’ve made to the country that people may not know about,” Mazloomi said. “I realized that most Americans don’t necessarily get their information by reading … so I made a timeline of historic events that have happened in African-American history, and I asked members of the network to choose a year and a subject and visually create a quilt around the topic.”

The results astounded Mazloomi on multiple levels, from their content to the creativity and craftsmanship the members brought to the project. Touring museums around the country, the exhibition has spoken to visitors in much the same way.

“The show has been quite popular,” Mazloomi said. “First, it’s the quilts themselves, but it’s also the stories. People can relate to the stories.”

In fact, the stories may be more relevant than ever, said Mariposa Museum Director Karla Hostetler, who helped bring the quilts to New Hampshire and is managing the New England leg of the tour. It was her idea to house the exhibition in the Canaan Meeting House, connecting it to African-American history in New Hampshire in a tangible way.

“I wanted to get it out of the museums and get people to think of it as a living history that’s still unfolding,” Hostetler said. “I had heard the story of Noyes Academy several years ago. At that time, I didn’t think it was something that could ever happen today. Now, I think it’s a story people need to hear.”

Zani-Dunkerton, who has spent the last 28 years documenting the town’s history, agrees. In a corner of the meeting house, she’s set up her own complementary exhibit showcasing the history of the Underground Railroad here in Canaan and the story of Noyes Academy, the first upper level, co-ed school in the United States to open its doors to African-Americans.

Through newspaper clippings, photographs and other documents inscribed with her elegant cursive, visitors can learn about how the first African-American young people traveled to the town in 1834, after several abolitionists, including Zani-Dunkerton’s great-great-great grandfather Nathaniel Currier, acquired a charter with the express purpose of educating all young people, regardless of race.

Barely a year later, 500 men from Canaan and neighboring towns, emboldened on barrels of rum from the country store, gathered with skids, chains and oxen and hauled Noyes Academy off its foundation and onto the town common, leaving it irreparably damaged. It was never rebuilt, and in 1839 it was set ablaze. Several of its students, however, went on to notable careers.

History lovers from all over come to visit the replica schoolhouse, which now serves as the town’s history museum, but much of the general population remains unaware of this chapter in New Hampshire history. “A lot of people aren’t interested in it, and a lot of people don’t want to know about it,” Zani-Dunkerton said.

She hopes the quilt exhibition will change that. “I think we’re going to have a big turnout,” she said.

Certainly, an affinity for history is no prerequisite for enjoying the exhibition, Hostetler said. Quilters, activists, school groups, even leaf peepers passing by will find something to appreciate in the meeting house, which holds 34 of the quilts, and the Mariposa Museum, which houses the other 10. “It really has many access points,” she said.

In fact, one need only be human to feel the pull that Zani-Dunkerton felt last week surveying the quilts. It’s an allure Mazloomi has often witnessed in her years of quilting.

“Everybody’s familiar with quilts. They hearken back to hearth and home and safety and security,” Mazloomi said. “But more so, everybody’s familiar with the cloth. It’s the first thing we’re wrapped in at birth, and it’s the last thing we’re wrapped in at death.”

“And Still We Rise,” is open at the Canaan Meeting House on weekends, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment. Visitors can contact Donna Dunkerton at 603-523-7960 or John Bergeron at 603-523-9621 or bergeronjh@gmail.com to book a tour or appointment. The Mariposa Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit mariposamuseum.org.