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Tribute to the Civil Rights Movement Heroines

A project by Patricia A. Montgomery

Patricia MontgomeryAmong the many exhibits to be at this year’s Quilt Festival in Houston is one that is as informative as it is inspiring; an enlightening exhibit that will introduce attendees to a number of women who played an important, but often underappreciated role in American history.

Tribute to the Civil Rights Movement Heroines is a collection of works by artist Patricia A. Montgomery that tell the story of lesser-known female figures from the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Each of the exhibit’s quilted garments—structured in the shape of a swing coat—highlights a part of each woman’s life or role in the Civil Rights Movement through the use of images, text, and design elements, including decorative stitches and embellishments.

The idea for this impressive project came to Montgomery following a trip to her local library. “I had applied for a grant, and had to come up with a new idea,” she explains. “I went to the library and found a book about ‘unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.’ So, I take it home and read through it, and the stories stuck with me. The book was about all of these women that were involved in the Civil Rights Movement but that we didn’t really know anything about.

“I grew up in the same era—I’m a Baby Boomer—but because I grew
up in New York, the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t for me like it was in
the South. So, when I started this project, I thought about what it would be like to tell the story of these women who we don’t know much
about, because many of them turned out to be the real backbone of
the Movement.”

Among the many individuals featured in Montgomery’s pieces is Claudette Colvin, who—at only 15 years old—was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months prior to the better-known Rosa Parks.

Colvin was also one of five plaintiffs originally included in the historic federal court case, Browder v. Gayle, in which the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama ruled that the segregation of black and white passengers on buses operating in the City of Montgomery violated the U.S. Constitution, a ruling that was later upheld by the United States Supreme Court.

Another of Patricia Montgomery’s quilted swing coats honors Amelia Boynton Robinson, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama, and a key figure in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches
for voting rights. On March 7, 1965, 600 protestors led by John Lewis marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River
into Selma.

State Troopers and county possemen attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” It was a photograph of Robinson’s wounded, unconscious body lying on the bridge that drew national attention to the cause, the story of which Montgomery outlines in her piece dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement heroine.

 2.

Other pieces in the exhibit honor Dollree Mapp, Carlotta Walls, JoAnn Robinson, Dorothy Cotton, Diane Nash, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Ella Josephine Baker, and Ida Mae Holland, a woman whose story Montgomery describes as a “moving and complete transformation.”

“All of these women contributed in a major way,” Montgomery says. “Some were foot soldiers and some were leaders. And in some cases, it wasn’t so much that they were a foot solider, but that because of the Civil Rights Movement, they went on to be something better.”

For each of the garments Montgomery created, she wanted the techniques and design elements to be true to the broader African-American quilting aesthetic.

“African-American quilting uses a lot of color and is based on the idea that nothing is perfect,” she says. “Also, I don’t care much about the quilt police. I don’t worry about them anymore, because I quilt my way, which is much more relaxed. And one of the things that happened in making these coats is that I ended up learning a lot of new techniques.”

She also learned some important lessons along the way—most importantly, that constructing a three-dimensional quilted garment required her to think and work much differently than she would in making flat quilts.

“When I started on the first coat [Diane Nash], I think I took it apart close to 10 different times before I could figure out how to get all of that quilted material together. After I quilted it, I had seams that weren’t going to go together the same way as when you make a [non-quilted] coat. She gave me a lot of trouble. She did not want to come into the world!

“It was a real challenge in the beginning, but I was determined…and each one got easier. And it became almost like they were people. In my apartment, we call them the girls. Believe me, they take over the space!”

4.In fact, one of the reasons that Montgomery chose the swing coat format for this project is that a garment, by its very nature, visually represents a person. “A garment has to be worn by a person, so when you think of it like that, and you hang a garment in a space, it’s as if that person’s spirit lives in that coat and within the space,” she clarifies.

Another reason for using swing coats—aside from being a personal favorite of Montgomery’s—is that the surface of the coat is wide enough to accommodate each
of the stories. On several of the pieces, the designs wrap from front to back of the coat, meaning that they are typically displayed on mannequins.

For a show in a large warehouse space in Sacramento, however, the coats were hung from the ceiling using filament. “It was very dramatic,” Montgomery says. “It was how I envisioned them to be, and when I finally saw it, it just brought tears to my eyes. Because they lived in that space. They moved.”

After all, for Montgomery, this project was largely about “bringing to
life” the individuals represented through each of the coats. And one of
the ways she accomplished this is by telling a part of each woman’s story
that she feels is “something personal,” and goes beyond what most people would know about the women depicted and the Civil Rights Movement in general.

“There was a lot that I didn’t know [about the Civil Rights Movement] when I started, and these coats have helped me understand a lot more,” she says. “Each woman I read about…I wanted to take a part of their story that was a little different.

“I thought that if I could touch a person’s soul [the viewer], maybe
they would want to go out and learn more about that individual…or
even about the Civil Rights Movement. Because we need to remember what happened in the past to make things what they are now. We need
to remember the things that were done in order to get us where we
are today.”

Photo Cutlines

1. Claudetta Was Arrested (Back of coat featuring Claudette Colvin)

2. “Bloody Sunday” Event Contributed to the Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Back of coat featuring Amelia Boynton Robinson)

3. The Builder of Leaders (Detail of coat featuring Ella Josephine Baker)

4. She Brought the Movement to Nashville (Detail of coat featuring Diane Nash)

5. She Was the Youngest to Walk the Halls (Back of coat featuring Carlotta Walls)

© 2017. A publication of Quintessential Quilt Media. No portion may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Quilts, Inc.