Quilts had an important role to play in black history. Some historians believe that safe houses along the Underground Railroad were indicated by a quilt hanging from a clothesline or windowsill. These quilts would be embedded with a code which the runaway slaves understood to mean certain things like, to travel in disguise or change from the clothing of a slave to a person of higher status, follow an animal trail through the mountains to find food and water or seek shelter. Back when African-Americans were enslaved, it was against the law for them to learn to read or write so they had to be able to communicate in alternative ways. Quilts were one of those ways, as was song.
The Lincoln Quilt Trail, Lincoln County Arts Council and Providence Missionary Baptist Church joined together to organize an exhibit, “Freedom Quilts of the Underground Railroad.” It includes barn quilts painted in the various symbols of the Underground Railroad, quilts made by local residents, books, pictures and historical memorabilia from the long journey taken to freedom.
On Feb. 12, the public is invited to attend live events held at both the Lincoln Cultural Center and at Providence Missionary Baptist Church from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. At the Lincoln Cultural Center, Marsha Millsaps will portray Harriet Tubman, telling the story of how Tubman helped slaves using the secret codes of barn quilts in the Underground Railroad. At Providence Missionary Baptist Church, visitors can travel through black history with pictures, books, quilts and historic memorabilia assembled by Debra Williams and Wanda Cates. The church choir will sing sacred hymns from the days of slavery and the youth group will perform praise dance.
The exhibit at the Cultural Center is currently on display through the end of February in the alcove of the center.
“We’re excited about having this show on the secret code of the barn patterns,” Deanna Williams-McGinnis, the executive director of the Arts Council of Lincoln County said. “We’re grateful to Providence Church for partnering with us. This is an absolutely beautiful and educational exhibit. You will hate you missed it if you don't get out on Wednesday the 12th and see it. We are hoping to grow this event next year and partner with the Historic Association and more churches. I’d like to see this become a yearly event that everyone looks forward to.”
When Angela Lovelace moved to Lincolnton, she connected with Williams-McGinnis and got on board with a steering committee working towards revamping Main Street in Lincolnton. The quilt trail was one of the steering committee projects that Lovelace got involved in early on and it’s grown tremendously since.
“I discovered all of these quilts have a story behind them, so I thought maybe we should do an exhibit in February since it’s Black History month,” she said. “We painted 15 barn quilts and each one has a special story behind it. The cloth quilts came from the quilt guild that meets here at the Cultural Center. The main quilt on display was made by Peggy Nichols and shows all of the different codes used in quilts. I spent months on the computer doing research. There’s so much history about it.”
The display at Providence Missionary Baptist Church has quilts in it, but it also has an extensive collection of fascinating information about important individuals and happenings in black history. It’s displayed inside the church and takes up two complete hallways.
Williams started to assemble her portion of the display several years ago as part of an African-American network she was involved in at her former place of employment in Charlotte. When she left that job, she took the pieces with her and started to display them during Black History month at Providence Missionary Baptist.
“Wanda Cates, a retired school teacher, started doing a display here at the church and when I started to come here, I added my stuff,” she said. “People were amazed. I learned a lot. I didn’t realize we’d done chemotherapy or 4G. It’s a very rich history if you start digging. I don’t believe as African-Americans that we teach black history as we should. Yes, there’s some things there that’s not good and we don’t like but it’s no different than the times we’re living right now. There’s some good in all of it and we need to look at that.”
The Lincoln Cultural Center is located at 403 East Main Street in Lincolnton. Providence Missionary Baptist Church is located at 1110 East Pine Street, also in Lincolnton. The events are free to attend.