Quilts of Color:
Three Generations of Quilters in an Afro-Texan Family

Program Notes: Pat Jasper, Texas Folklife Resources


Quilts of Color: Three Generations of Quilters in an Afro-Texan Family surveys the tradition of quilting among sisters Katie Mae Tatum and Gladys Henry, and Henry's daughter Laverne Brackens and granddaughter Sherry Byrd. This family of quilters has been based out of Fairfield, Texas for the last five generations, since the end of the Civil War. And while only these four quilters are represented in the exhibition by work, the two generations of women preceding them were also quilters. This family provides a rare glimpse of an active tradition as it unfolded over time and within the life of the individual makers.

The aesthetic of Black quilting treats pattern, color and piecing playfully and asymmetrically. As a result, African-American quilts are frequently compared to African-American music. Genres such as jazz, blues and gospel often are characterized by syncopation, improvisation and bold juxtapositions of tempo and key. Simply put, African-American quiltmakers use some of these same techniques in their two-dimensional quilting compositions. For example, asymmetry in Black quilts can be related to syncopation in music because, just as the syncopated beat moves around and off the set rhythm, the asymmetrical quilt simultaneously celebrates and subverts pattern. And, like the role of melody in improvisatory jazz, pattern in a Black quilt is cited and sampled, but then broken down and manipulated to crate surprising and new effects. Juxtapositions in tempo and key can be compared in African-American quilting to the bold contrasts in color and texture that are often found in a single quilt.

This is not to say that Black needle workers are unaware of or unskilled at practicing the style more identified with an Anglo-American quilting tradition, in which precise patterns and so-called complementary colors are the standard. On the contrary, quilting in the African-American community was likely first practiced by slaves who sewed them for and at the direction of slave owners. Overtime and possibly drawing on influences that pre-date their arrival in the Americas, slaves and their descendants began to craft quilts that assert a distinctive creative sensibility. And to this day, many Black quilters are conversant in both styles. As Sherry Byrd notes, "African-Ameircan quilters are versatile. It's like they know two languages...We make the Black quilts for our families and...we make the white quilts to sell."

In a sense, versatility refers both to the African-American quilter's ability to move between styles of quilting a well as her flexibility to work with the pattern as template and as a source of individual expression. Among these women, versatility is central because it hints at what might be interpreted as an intergenerational dialogue within this family of quilters. For example, both Henry and Tatum are of the generation that used quilting as an economic resource and a household necessity. Their versatility in two styles of quilting constitutes a basic self-sufficiency strategy. Sherry and her mother, on the other hand, exercise versatility by composing quilts that would be categorized as African-American by all terms considered here. Their work with patterns is a kind of performance, an improvisation that Brackens would refer to as "mix and match" and Byrd would call "textile music." Over time, this family tradition clearly holds and the distinctive aesthetic dimension of African-American quilting continues to dominate, echoing Sherry Byrd's comment, "I've always made Black ones, because that was where my heart was, to do that type of quilting!"

Gladys Henry
Gladys Henry was born in Butler, Texas in 1906 into a family of quilters, including her mother, Ellen Anna Titus Durham, and her grandmother, Patsy Reddick Manning. She completed the schooling that was available to her in the community (up to the eighth grade) and married her husband Willie Albert Henry, Sr. in 1924. Over the course of their marriage, she and her husband moved around the area as he took on jobs farming for other landholders. Their family grew to include four girls and five boys.

Her quilting activity was part and parcel of the many activities she undertook to support and nurture her household. In addition to quilting, she sewed clothes for people, crocheted, tatted and made rag rugs. Like the farmwoman she was, she canned fresh vegetables from a kitchen garden she tended herself.

Yet, the legacy of her quilting is especially notable, as all participants in the exhibit point to her as a central influence. As the primary caretaker for her grandchildren, she is even the most direct influence on the quilting career of her granddaughter Sherry Byrd. Mrs. Henry died in 1996, but not before her quilts had hung in museums across the country.


Katie Mae Tatum
Katie Mae Tatum was born 82 years ago about three blocks from where she lives today. That doesn't mean, however, she has stayed put all her life. After she married her husband, they moved to Austin for a few years and then to Denver, Colorado for over three decades. In 1977, when her husband retired, they returned to her family's historic homestead in Freestone County.

Mrs. Tatum grew up in a setting in which her grandmother, mother and selected siblings quilted. Learning to quilt from her mother at the age of eight, she remembers that "after the people laid by their crops, that was the main thing that most of the women did, was go from house to house and help each other quilt...they quilted because they didn't have enough money to buy blankets."

After leaving home and relocating the Denver, she dropped quilting as one of her regular pastimes. When Mrs. Tatum and her husband returned to Texas, her sister Gladys was living just down the road. In an effort to relieve her sister of some of the demand on her time, Mrs. Tatum began accepting some of her quilting work. Soon, she was again quilting daily. These days she has a quilt frame set up year-round in her living room for projects that she is constantly working on, for herself and for others.


Laverne Brackens
Born in the 1920s, Laverne Brackens (pictured on the program cover) is the middle generation of quilters still active in her family today. Like her Aunt Katie Mae Tatum and her daughter Sherry Byrd, she learned the basics of quilting at home, observing her mother and grandmother and trying her hand occasionally at stitching and piecing. But as one of the eldest children in her parent's home, she recalls being responsible for many other household tasks. Perhaps this is the reason she didn't continue quilting as a young woman.

After marrying Connie Freddie Lee Brackens in the 1940s, Mrs. Brackens worked in a variety of jobs, but most consistently as a cook in private homes and public institutions. After an accident in the early 1980s, she retired from her job and was prevented from further work involving physical strain. As it turned out, quilting provided just the right creative outlet for her boundless energy. Nowadays, she spends all of her free time cutting, piecing and sewing several quilts a month.


Sherry Byrd One of seven children, Sherry Byrd was born in Fairfeld, Texas in 1951. After high school, Sherry attended Sam Houston State University, majoring in history and minoring in art. Sherry's exposure to quilting came early. During the day, while her parents worked, her grandmother Gladys Henry oversaw the grandchildren and would sometimes commandeer them to help with her latest quilting project. Sherry remembers helping her to tack quilts and even teaching her to stitch by using some of her grandmother's scarps. However, she never really sat down to quilt alongside her.

Nonetheless, she states, "I always knew, even as a little girl, that I was going to make me a quilt one day." Finally, in 1984 after a personal crisis, Sherry decided to act on her long-deferred desire and made a baby quilt. Sherry's quilting is very much an expression of her experience. She draws heavily on the lessons she picked up observing her grandmother quilt. Her favorite pattern, the simple one patch, is visible in many of her mother's and grandmother's quilts, but it's her art school training that seems to come through in her sophisticated use of color. In the short time she's been active, Sherry has already seen a good deal of public acclaim. Black quilt exhibitions which include her work have toured throughout the United States for several years.




Quilts of Color is produced by Texas Folklife Resources (TFR), a private, non-profit cultural organization dedicated to celebrating and perpetuating the traditional arts and culture of the Lone Star State. For more information about Texas Folklife Resources, call (512) 441-9255, e-mail at tfr@io.com or view the website at www.main.org/tfr. This exhibit is made possible in part with funding from Texas Commission on the Arts, the City of Austin under the auspices of the Austin Arts Commission and the Austin American-Statesman.

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