“We’re standing in front of the Bear Paw Trail quilt," said Teresa Kemp.
She is standing in front of an impressive quilt with
blue squares and triangles formed together to produce shapes that look similar
to bear paws scattered across a white background. That quilt is one of dozens
in the exhibit that depicts secret codes used by slaves to help one another
along the Underground Railroad.
“This quilt was used by escaping freedom seekers for people
who have been captured and enslaved throughout the United
States. They wanted to escape to freedom to Canada.
My family used African patters and prints—signs and symbols—as maps and
information that they used in Africa to communicate here so that they would not
be caught, killed, punished, or brought back to slavery,” said Kemp.
Kemp’s own family was instrumental in making use of the
quilts and also preserving their history. She is a graduate of West Virginia
and ran a museum of her family’s history in Atlanta
until 2007, when she took her exhibit on the road. She brought her collection
of quilts to the Della Brown
Taylor Hardman Art
Gallery on West
Virginia State University’s
campus this weekend.
“This one is our oldest quilt. This is a silk log cabin
quilt,” said Kemp as she explained another important quilt in her collection.
The quilt features what Kemp calls the red door code, which
was an especially good sign for slaves traveling along the Underground
“These quilts, you could hang them outside as if they were
going to dry after you had clean them. If they could read they quilt they knew
this house was safe to come to,” she said.
While all of the quilts in Kemp’s exhibit are historically enlightening
and sentimentally important to her, no other is as eye-catching as the one with
portraits of her ancestors sewn onto the quilt.
It’s a family tree of sorts for Kemp and indicates her family’s ability
to overcome the horrors of slavery and segregation.
“This is my father’s grandmother, Austin. She quilted. This is my great-grandfather Jefferson.
William Jefferson had a store in in Burma,
West Virginia. They had a
two-story white house with apple trees and cherry trees. His wife taught me to
can, to cook, to make things from scratch on a coal stove. This is my mother’s father, he was Milton
Strother. He wrote the speeches of Strom
Thurman and he wrote one of the most inspirational speeches I’ve ever seen,” said Kemp.
Although Kemp’s family portrait quilt proves that
institutionalized slavery in America
no longer exists as it did in the nineteenth century, she said that slavery
still remains in different forms around the globe. The mission of her traveling exhibit is to
continue to combat human trafficking by sharing the methods African American
slaves used in the days of the Underground Railroad and long before.
“Quilting is worldwide. So, we try to bring the exhibit to
say that slavery still exists. I still
fight human trafficking in Atlanta
as an abolitionist. I’m from a family of
abolitionists and this is one of over thirty-eight methods of escape that we
documented of how people want to be free—many, many years ago and today—around
they world. They use many different methods to get them out of slavery to
provide resources, comfort, food, clothing and shelter,” she said.