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The history of Black pioneers told through quilts at The James Museum in St. Petersburg

“Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West” reveals important historical figures and events.
"Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West," an exhibition of pictorial quilts that explore Black history in the West, is at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. Members of the Women of Color Quilters Network created the quilts especially for this exhibition.
"Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West," an exhibition of pictorial quilts that explore Black history in the West, is at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. Members of the Women of Color Quilters Network created the quilts especially for this exhibition. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 25, 2022|Updated Oct. 30, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Learn the largely untold stories of the people who made up the fabric of this country’s history — literally, through textiles — at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

“Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West” is the first of its kind, exploring Black history in the West through a timeline of pictorial quilts. It dispels myths and illuminates facts about Black people’s occupations, religions and achievements.

The quilts have been created by the Women of Color Quilters Network especially for this exhibition, which was organized by The James Museum.

Marsha Housel, left, and Margaret Garcia, both retired schoolteachers from St. Petersburg, tour the exhibit “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, in St. Petersburg. “This is my second time seeing this exhibit. I love it,” Garcia said.
Marsha Housel, left, and Margaret Garcia, both retired schoolteachers from St. Petersburg, tour the exhibit “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, in St. Petersburg. “This is my second time seeing this exhibit. I love it,” Garcia said. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, curator, historian and artist, is the founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network. Mazloomi did extensive research on the participation of African Americans in the West, and didn’t find a great deal of written material. She came up with a timeline and a list of notable figures and let the network choose the one they wanted to depict.

Mazloomi believes quilts are an easy way to tell stories in a visual language. She also noted that Africans who were brought to the U.S. already had needlework skills that easily translated into quilting. She said that narrative quilts were a way to tell stories, especially during slavery, when people weren’t allowed to read or write.

“Each quilt is a learning tool,” she said. “And these are unsung stories to this day that people don’t know about. So it’s important for me, as a curator, it’s important for me as an African American, that viewers outside of my race know these stories and know that we have been contributors to the canvas of what’s great, what made this country. From the day we stepped off the slave ship, we have been valuable participants and contributors.”

Artists in the network come from across the nation, bringing a variety of quilting styles and techniques to the exhibition.

Carolyn Crump of Houston made several quilts in the exhibition. With “The Truth Hurts: Riches, Resentments, Revenge, RIOTS,” she depicts the Tulsa race massacre. Over two days in 1921, mobs of white residents of the Oklahoma city destroyed its thriving African American neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds.

A quilt by Carolyn Crump of Houston, titled “The Truth Hurts: Riches, Resentment, Revenge, RIOTS,” 2021, is part of the “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" exhibition of pictorial quilts that explore Black history in the West at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
A quilt by Carolyn Crump of Houston, titled “The Truth Hurts: Riches, Resentment, Revenge, RIOTS,” 2021, is part of the “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" exhibition of pictorial quilts that explore Black history in the West at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Crump is a formally trained painter, which comes through in the use of perspective and ability to render 3D imagery in this piece. In the foreground, a well-dressed Black man holds a newspaper depicting the massacre on the front page. On the sleeves of his blazer in script rendered in thread he’s identified as O.W. Gurley, one of the wealthiest men in Tulsa before the massacre forced him to flee. A brief biography of his life follows on the sleeves.

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A different depiction of Black entrepreneurship is shown in L’Merchie Frazier’s “Call Me Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant: The Midas Touch.” Mary Ellen Pleasant found fortune and fame during the Gold Rush era in San Francisco. She lived from 1814 to 1904 and ascended from indentured servitude to self-made millionaire. Over her lifetime, she amassed more than $30 million. She was also a civil rights activist and benefactor.

Frazier plays with shapes and dimension in the quilt that features a portrait of Pleasant, an iconic San Francisco streetcar and a mansion.

Jeanne Leasure of Carrollwood, left, Virginia Chapman of Tierra Verde and Lillian Nicholas, also of Tierra Verde, tour “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
Jeanne Leasure of Carrollwood, left, Virginia Chapman of Tierra Verde and Lillian Nicholas, also of Tierra Verde, tour “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Dorothy Burge of Chicago made a cutout of Mary Fields — who was known as Stagecoach Mary — for her quilt, which is the only one in the exhibition that isn’t framed by square borders. Born into slavery in the early 1830s, Fields was freed after the Civil War. She moved to Montana in 1885 after working as a laundress on riverboats. Fast-forward a decade, and Fields became the second woman and first African American woman star route mail carrier in the U.S. Her reliability and speed earned her the nickname Stagecoach Mary, and at 6 feet tall, folks knew not to mess with the hard-drinking, quick-shooting woman who wore men’s clothing. Yet she was praised for being kind and loyal. She became a Wild West legend also known as Black Mary and White Crow.

A quilt by Dorothy Burge of Chicago, titled “Stagecoach Mary,” 2021, is on display in “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West,” an exhibition of pictorial quilts at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
A quilt by Dorothy Burge of Chicago, titled “Stagecoach Mary,” 2021, is on display in “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West,” an exhibition of pictorial quilts at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Burge’s choice to make a cutout of this legend was the correct one; she cuts a fierce figure that stands out on the wall.

Another surprising aspect of the histories is Black people’s early involvement in Mormonism. Earamichia Brown honors African American Mormon pioneer Elijah Abel with her quilt, “He is Able.” Abel was an associate of Joseph Smith, the founder and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Abel was ordained to the church’s priesthood in 1836, making him one of the first and last African Americans to hold that position for decades. But in 1852, Brigham Young banned Black people from the church, a ban that lasted until 1978.

A quilt by Earamichia Brown of McKinney, Texas, “He is Able,” 2021, is on display in “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West” at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.
A quilt by Earamichia Brown of McKinney, Texas, “He is Able,” 2021, is on display in “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West” at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Brown employs cyanotype printing to give the quilt the feeling of the two-toned images of the time period. The quilt depicts the Mormon Trail, covered wagons heading out West and the Western landscape and documents.

These are just a few examples of the many fascinating stories of Black pioneers and the skilled quilters who depict them. Their history begs to be revisited. The exhibition will travel the country after its run at The James Museum, a wonderful way to spread this important information.

If you go

“Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West.” On view through Jan. 8, 2023. $10-$23, free for children 6 and younger. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, with the exception of Tuesdays, when the hours are 10 a.m.-8 p.m. and admission is $10 for adults and $5 for youths. 150 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-892-4200. thejamesmuseum.org.