The pieces of cloth form a simple yet significant pattern for Jane Keenheel, a person born into slavery. Samantha Dorm Photo.
Quilting as a symbol of freedom: Jane Keenheel transformed enslaved peoples’ cloth into a work of art
The cloth worn on the backs of enslaved people now comprises a beautiful quilt preserved by the York County History Center. York County’s Samantha Dorm loaned it earlier this year. Her great-great-aunt, Jane Keenheel of Bamberg, South Carolina, crafted it by hand. Many Black York County residents come from the Bamberg area.
Born into slavery, Jane took remnants of khaki, gray, and blue fabric from worn-out pants, dresses, and shirts.
We don’t know much about her intentions or thoughts, but one can imagine the powerful feeling Jane felt when she saved the clothing, breathing new life into what would have been discarded.
To maintain control, owners required inferior types of dress as a clear sign of the social hierarchy. The bland and often uncomfortable clothing stifled creativity and individual identity.
Put simply, it undermined their humanity.
Once freed, Jane discarded the oppressive essence of the fabric, exchanging subjection for liberation.
I imagine her cutting through the shirts with an old pair of steel scissors. Slicing through the strands with precision, she toppled the old regime for a new self-sovereignty. I picture her laying out the squares on an old wooden table, or maybe on the ground. She decided how the quilt would look – no one else.
The meaning behind quilting
First made to keep us warm at night, quilts are now sold and hung on walls.
However, they mean so much more than decorations to many women.
Working alone or in a group, women stitch patches of cloth into a work of art. Their hard work and skills combine scraps into something more than the sum of its parts. Older generations, for instance, pass on a knowledge to younger cohorts who wish to continue the tradition.
Like most folk customs, quilts communicate more than just the surface function. We look at the ways women made, used, and cared for their quilts. York County artist, Gale Jamieson, created a quilt made from issues of the York Daily Record as a way to preserve journalistic history.
Women have been quilting for centuries as a way to repurpose old fabric, showcase their skills, and provide comfort to their family members. Historians use these textiles as artifacts to better understand people’s social and economic circumstances. For example, people who live in lower socioeconomic classes tend to re-use scraps of cloth instead of purchasing brand new, according to Maude Southwell Wahlman, author of Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts.
Women express themselves like this all over the world. They encode subversive or challenging messages under the guise of gender-appropriate traditions. In Feminist Messages: Coding in Women’s Folk Culture, feminist scholar Joan Newlon Radner argues that coded messages empower a group of people, leading to change.
Items like quilts “refuse, subvert, or transform conventional expectations,” wrote Radner. Their messages lay under the eyes of the dominant community, inaccessible to outsiders who cannot read the code, or even recognize it as code. This also means their messages can be interpreted in many different ways.
Many incorrectly assume the 13th Amendment functioned as the “happily ever after” ending that stopped slavery completely. This was not the case. African Americans, especially women, faced persecution and racism for many decades.
Quilting was and still is an effective technique for Black women moving through male and white-dominated arenas.
Jane’s passes down the quilt to her lineage
When Gilbert Williams, Jane’s grandson, headed off to school, she gifted him the quilt. He needed a way to stay warm at night, and her handmade quilt served as the perfect bed linen.
Gilbert grew up picking cotton, but he knew he wanted a change. One day in the fields, he prayed to God, asking him to grant him the strength to reach the end of the cotton row. If he did, Gilbert would find a trade and never find himself laboring in the fields again.
God was listening.
Once he got to the end of the row, Gilbert walked 8 miles to Claflin University where they admitted him with no down payment. There, he learned the art of tailoring clothes. Like his grandmother, he saw a path to empowerment through stitching together fabric.
Years later, the quilt changed hands again.
Gilbert presented it to his cousin, Marilee Keenheel Jones, originally from York, who safeguarded it (as well as the quilt’s story) until she passed it down to Samantha Dorm, her great niece.
Encoded messages in quilts
Jane infused her personal experiences into those quilt squares. However, she wasn’t a radical. Her textile commentary kept her safe within the race and gender norms of the time while still symbolizing herself and her step toward freedom.
Other women similarly tell stories and share personal experiences through the quilts.
A quilter named Annie Mae Young from Gee’s Bend, Alabama started patching together a quilt in the 1970s. The strip pattern made from work clothes represents prison bars, the faded denim symbolizing the failed American dream for African Americans.
Another craftswoman, Yvonne Wells, captured the fight for civil rights in a quilt made from thrift store fabric, her personal pajamas, and clothes donated by the community. Rough textures and black fabric symbolize their struggle.
In Wilcox County, Alabama, a group of Black women started a quilting cooperative called The Freedom Quilting Bee. Born in 1966 during the height of the civil rights movement, it was started for poor women to make money for their families. The Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective, also in Wilcox county, even have a quilt murals trail.
Like these women, Jane inverted the symbol of female domesticity into an expression of resistance and independence. She refashioned 19th century slave textiles into a more than a bed covering, but a sign of her bondage ending, and her new life just beginning.
Samantha Dorm loaned the quilt to York County History Center to help her preserve a precious family heirloom. I encourage you to do the same. Visit an aging family relative and listen to their stories. As an example, you can listen to Dorm’s recording of Marilee explaining the history of Jane’s quilt HERE.
Continue to tell your family’s stories, and contact York County History Center if you want more information on preserving your family’s artifacts.