African_American, Quilts, Eli Leon, Improvisational, Afro-American, Quilts,  Rosie Lee Tompkins, Arbie Williams, African American, Eli Leon.
African-American Quilts
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Reclaiming a Missing Link (continued)

Many "anonymous" quilts would be reclaimable as the products of black craftspeople if I were able to engage all of the gatekeepers encountered along the way (in this case, as we shall see, I was dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of five separate informants, six if I count Alberta and Betty as two), but most of my collecting stories don't turn out this well.  The search ends when I can't overcome suspicion or indifference at one or another critical point.

Betty turned the catalog over to me.  Contacting Butterfields, I was soon informed that I was wasting both my time and theirs.  The last thing I might expect, I was roundly assured, was for an auction house to be giving out the names of its sellers.  I insisted on speaking to someone in authority and, eventually, was put in touch with a woman who gave me the time to explain that I was writing a book about African survivals in African-American quilts, that this particular quilt evidenced several such survivals, and that it would be of little use to me without its history.  Sympathetic to my mission, the woman agreed to look the sale up.  (A year or two later, in my attempt to reclaim the heritage of another stray quilt, I tried this again, found that my helper at Butterfields had moved on, butted against a wall of impatience and sarcasm, and had no choice but to give up the quest).

The San Francisco estate that this quilt had come out of, it turned out, had been under a conservatorship.  My informant was not allowed, by law, to tell me the company name, but was willing to contact them herself and seek permission for me to talk to the party that had handled the transaction.  Again I was lucky.  Once apprized of the nature of my research, the conservator agreed to talk to me.  Black conservatorships were extremely uncommon in her experience but, as she couldn't help blurting out as soon as I got her on the phone, the man to whom this quilt had belonged--now residing in a nursing home--was indeed black.  How on earth, she wondered aloud, could I know such a thing?

This was a peak experience for me.  My audience couldn't have been readier for the theory of African influence.  Quite aside from which, even if I were to get no further, I now had some measure of authentication.

But I was on a roll.  My latest helper called the daughter-in-law of the old man who had once owned the quilt and got permission for me to talk to her myself. Lodesta, as it turned out, was delighted to hear from me.  She'd worried about the family's quilts and was relieved to learn that this one had found a good home. We arranged for me to bring it across the Bay that next day for a hands-on identification.  She was amused when she saw it.  Turned out, it was the quilt they used the most.  Kept it on the sofa to wrap up in while watching T.V.  Called it "the loud quilt."

There had been several other, "better," quilts that had been sold as higher class merchandise in another section of the auction.  I tried to track them down but in each case the buyer refused to talk to me. Mine, according to Lodesta, was made by Mother Brown, a woman who'd had a special relationship with the quilt's owner, Lodesta's now-deceased mother-in-law, Helen.

Here's the story.  In the 1930's, Helen had gone to Houston-Tillotson College with Mother Brown's daughter, Elfreda.  A year after graduation, when Helen, an orphan, had married and was about to have her first child, the aunt who raised her died.  Helen had no one to assist her.  Elfreda informed her mother of Helen's plight, and Mother Brown (born Mary Lue Humphrey, Giddings, Texas, 1891) went to Louisiana to help, staying with Helen until she was able to handle the situation herself.  The two formed an attachment that was to last until Mother Brown's death in 1979.

Lodesta put me in touch with Elfreda, Mother Brown's now elderly daughter, living in Southern California.  Elfreda speculated that the quilt (of whose existence she'd until then been unaware) had been made in Dallas in the 1940s and sent to her former classmate as a present.  Elfreda's hearing was spotty, so we corresponded.  She agreed to send a photo of her mother from the forties, but several years passed before she was actually willing to risk it.  "This is the only photo I have of my mother," she wrote in her accompanying note, "You promised to return it.  I hope that you will be true to your word.  I do not have a negative so you see how dear to my heart this picture is."  The photo has since accompanied the quilt in my exhibitions and catalogs.  In a later note Elfreda wrote, "I look forward to receiving a copy of the book you may publish.  My children will be happy to see something their grandmother did."


1.  For a comprehensive discussion of the borders of improvisational African-American quilts and their African counterparts, see Leon,
Something Elso to See: Improvisational Bordering Styles in African-American quilts, passim.
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African_American, Quilts, Eli Leon, Improvisational, Afro-American, Quilts,  Rosie Lee Tompkins, Arbie Williams, African American, Eli Leon.