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African-American Quilts
African_American, Quilts, Eli Leon, Improvisational, Afro-American, Quilts,  Rosie Lee Tompkins, Arbie Williams,
African American, Eli Leon.
Strip Quilt, Mary Lue Brown, 1940s
Reclaiming a Missing Link
by Eli Leon

I first saw Mother Brown's missing-link strip quilt one drizzly Saturday morning at a great distance across the enormous Oakland, California Alameda fleamarket.  It was winter, 1984.  The quilt was wrapped around an African-American quilt enthusiast and occasional dealer of my acquaintance named Alberta.  As a new scholar of improvisational African-American patchwork and a proponent of the theory of African influence on African-American quiltmaking, I was very much on the lookout for survivals of African esthetic values in the American work.  Spotting Mother Brown's quilt, even from afar, I was pretty sure I'd hit pay dirt.

I zipped across the fleamarket, my extra-large shopping cart bouncing behind me, and bought the quilt out from around Alberta.  I'd arrived in the nick of time.  Alberta and her friend Betty, who turned out to be the quilt's owner, were about to get rained out.  Thrilled to find what I considered to be a repository of Africanisms so close to what I assumed was the quilt's community of origin, I readied pencil and paper to take notes and started firing questions.  Needless to say, I was crestfallen to discover that Alberta and Betty had no information to give me, or so they believed.  Betty had bought the quilt at auction and knew nothing whatever about its origins.  Short of a miracle, its maker would forever remain anonymous.

Within a decade, this quilt would dazzle the American museum-going public in
Who'd a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking--my first cataloged exhibition of African-American quilts, whose twenty-some-odd venues would include the Renwick gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, Chicago's Field Museum, and the American Craft Museum in New York City. Paired with a stripwoven Hausa cloth from West Africa that makes use of a similar randomized checkerboard pattern, it would grace the cover of my second catalog, Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork. And, although I would make repeated research / collecting trips to East Texas, Northern Louisiana and Southern Arkansas (the region from which most of my California quiltmaking contacts had migrated), and see hundreds of improvisational African-American quilts, Mother Brown's would remain my best example of a "two-pair" bordering arrangement, thereby providing critical support for one of my strongest arguments for African antecedents.1   In short, once its origins were established, this quilt would be of  particular importance to my work; I couldn't have been more disheartened by the news that Alberta and Betty had no clue as to who made it.

When told of my belief that the quilt was African-American, Alberta assured me that it was.  I asked how she knew.  She made gestures in its direction ("
Look at it!") and explained that you could just tell. Betty could not have agreed more.  Well, I was pretty sure it was African-American and they were pretty sure it was African-American, but mere opinions were of limited use for my scholarly purposes.

Although the rain got steadily worse, I was unable to tear myself from the spot.  I hung around, sinking onto a folding chair and asking pesky questions while Alberta and Betty packed.  Did they get anything else with this quilt?  Had it by any chance been in a carton with some kind of label or other stuff written on it?  How long ago had this auction taken place?  Which auction was it, anyway?  Finally, Betty perked up.  "Hey," she said, poking around in her glove compartment for a Butterfields catalog, "wait a minute."  She still had it, a thirteen page list of several thousand items.  She'd circled the items she'd bid on, and there it was: #640; PATCH QUILT.  She'd got it for ten bucks, sold it to me for twenty-five.
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African_American, Quilts, Eli Leon, Improvisational, Afro-American, Quilts,  Rosie Lee Tompkins, Arbie Williams,
African American, Eli Leon.
Hausa Cloth, Nigeria