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Hello NC: Episode 5, Quilts and Community in Warrenton, North Carolina

By Karl Galloway

Warrenton, NC is the seat of Warren County and at the 2010 census had a population of 862. The Hometown Strong and Hello NC team visited a few weeks ago to learn more about this town, its quilters, and the patchwork of rich history that defines its community.

We were traveling to speak with the Heritage Quilters, and to learn about their craft. In 2015, a folklife project grant was awarded to Warrenton Library to fund “Stitching Life Stories,” a quilting and life-narrative community project run by the Heritage Quilters of Warren County.

The entrance to Frontier Warren and “Job’s Tears” by Jereann King Johnson

We met the Heritage Quilters for their 20th anniversary show at Frontier Warren, a creative space whose stated mission is to link its citizens with influential organizations located in Research Triangle Park, while positioning Warren County as the leader in development of rural entrepreneurs. That day, the walls were draped with colorful quilts.

“That’s what Frontier Warren, the building we‘re in, is all about. It provides entrepreneurial and creative opportunities to citizens, and young people, so that they don’t have to leave if they don’t want. Participating in your hometown fully, economically, socially, is important to make a whole person’s experience.” -Angel Jones

When we arrived, we were immediately ushered into the exhibit by Jereann King Johnson, textile artist, community activist, and founding member of the Heritage Quilters. As part of her work, and with grant support from the Highlander Research Center with the We Shall Overcome Fund, Jereann mentors Warren County youth, and is working to share the storytelling power of quilting. Now, she and the young people involved are producing a quilt that examines climate change and its effects on our planet. It makes sense that Jereann and Warrenton would be invested in this issue, as Jereann explained:

“Warrenton has the distinction of being the birthplace of environmental justice, a title earned almost 50 years ago when the initial environmental justice spark sprang from a Warren County, North Carolina, protest.” -Jereann King Johnson

In 1982, a small, predominately African-American community was designated to host a hazardous waste landfill. This landfill would accept PCB-contaminated soil that resulted from illegal dumping of toxic waste along roadways. After removing the contaminated soil, the state of North Carolina considered a number of potential sites to host the landfill, but ultimately settled on this small African-American community. Learning about this, the community at the time, largely poor, Black, people, staged a protest, putting their bodies in front of trucks carrying toxic PCB waste. The protest ultimately failed, and the waste was dumped. However, it birthed a movement, one that recognized the tendency of federal and state agencies to locate hazardous material and waste sites near poor communities of color.

Jereann with drafts for the climate change quilt, a pamphlet from the march, and protesters in 1982

“Those are the kids I’m working with.” Jereann told us when two teenagers walked in to the show with their guardians. The group began joking about differences of opinion in the process but all were eager to share their thoughts. This is their first quilt, and Jereann assured us of their brilliance and dedication, as well as their commitment to the cause of combating climate change.

Having known about the genesis of the environmental movement beforehand, we pondered the fact that history can be made anywhere, even on a small road leading to a small town, and imagined the people who had made it happen. However, these thoughts were detached from the rooted history and we didn’t expect to come close enough to the movement’s legacy to shake its hand. That changed when we met Angel Jones and Chris West. Angel’s mother, Rosa, and Chris’ grandparents Janetta and Joe West, were all leading protagonists in the movement, and they began sharing memories. Chris’ grandfather is featured in some of the pictures of the protest. Stories of the little white jailhouse where protesters were taken started to flow, and Angel recalled being crammed into a car with other children and shouting “I’ll get you out mom!”, as Rosa was arrested. It was stunning to stumble on such a powerful legacy, but the more time we spent there, the more it became clear that Warrenton is defined by a fabric of protest and community. Spend enough time there and you’ll likely trip over one of its threads.

The town is small, and Chris Angel’s respective grandmothers were cousins. Janetta West ran the hair shop in Warrenton, and according to Angel “everyone in Warren County had their hair or head touched by his grandma.” This could be taken literally or figuratively. Chris’ grandparents organized people on the political front, groups and kids, and kept them active. Angel worked on Eva Clayton’s campaign, and was in DC for her inaugural ball. Opportunities were provided to participate in the governmental process. That drive and community kept Angel in town.

Angel Jones

“The town is coming back into its fullness and richness of expression and art. It’s justifying for me. It’s justifying. Protest was ingrained in me, and growing up here I now truly understand what the protest was about. It’s such and honor to be a part of it. To see the kids now grow up and be part of the environmental justice movement via quilts, it’s truly special.” -Angel

Chris West

“That same sense of community that saved this community from the unhealthiness that could have been here also saved us and is coming back. And it’s being preserved.” -Chris

The conversation returned to the quilts all around us. Angel evoked images of her childhood that included wood stoves, and heavy quilts thrown over laps to keep off the chill. For her, the fabric hanging on the wall was warmth, art, and heritage, all at the same time. Jereann chuckled at the new concept of weighted blankets, whose goal can be achieved with 3 or 4 quilts.

“Jacob’s Ladder” by Leo Kelly Jr. and a depiction of Zora Neale Hurston

Angel reminisced on aunts and grandmothers quilting, and seemed to lament the fact that she never picked up the craft. However, she’s very happy that the children have begun to carry on the tradition. Jereann made it clear that quilting is going to a different level, beyond the home. Long used for comfort and for the bed, the art form is now fully imbued with (or formally recognized as representing) survival and messaging, and quilts can be high art. However, the soulful thread of quilting, Jereann asserts, has not been cut.

“They still are utilitarian in the sense that they sustain us and they are for a purpose.” -Jereann

The quilts around us certainly had stories to tell. Some took on social justice issues, others demonstrated mind bending skill and technique.

Belinda showing “Storm of Injustice” by Gail Richardson

Belinda, a self-described nomad who counts Kansas and New York among her past homes, is one of the heritage quilters. She took over the tour to show us some of the finer points of quilting. We saw friendship quilts, challenge quilts, and paper piecing that requires sewing in reverse. Little by little we started to understand the depth of knowledge required to master quilting, although Jereann and Belinda would say that such a goal is impossible.

Later, we caught back up with Jereann, who had returned from the market on her bike, a pale green cruiser with yellow-walled tires. Between the bike and her long skirts she cut a figure not unlike Mary Poppins. Her love and support for the children she mentors only served to solidify that impression.

Jereann, John Hyman, and the Hedrick House

She guided us down main street and past a few food trucks towards an old white building with a small sign next to the door reading “Heritage Quilters.” It was warm inside, and she turned on the air. A quilted piece rested over the mantel in the front room, showing the likeness of John Hyman, a freed man of color and an important figure in the area. His quilted rendering was complete with mustache, velvet collar, and period buttons. Another quilt, full of color and character, showed the Baptist Church annual picnic. The details are incredible, and individual plates and platters can be picked out. The medium included paint and fabric and the result is a dynamic community history whose protagonists are easily recognized.

Baptist Church Annual Picnic

The next quilt Jereann showed us represented one of the most hallowed traditions within the craft. By Hassie Boddy this “serious quilt” with it’s off-kilter style (“get in where you fit in” as Jereann put it) and tilting geometry echoed the quilters of Gee’s Bend in Alabama, one of the most hallowed traditions within the craft. The Bend is home to a Black community long isolated by geography, and excluded by deep racism born of the institution of enslavement and marginalized by its legacy. Within this group, a quilting tradition emerged. Poor people have always quilted for thrift, and as the craft grew, communities shared patterns, sometimes via catalogs. This exchange was not possible in Gee’s Bend, and the tradition that emerged there is unlike any other, simply because there were not other influences to inform or direct it. The quilts produced have since become renowned as high art, and lead quilting’s charge into modern museum culture.

Quilt by Hassie Boddy

But, as Jereann would tell us, the quilts of Gee’s Bend did not have their roots in Alabama. In fact, the ancestors of the Gee’s Bend quilters originally were forced to walk from Halifax County to Boykin. Captain Gee, during the expansion of the 1840s, and the original gold rush towards Georgia and Alabama, pushed westward from Halifax county to the Bend in the Alabama River with around 70 enslaved people. The only people who rode were the cook and Captain Gee. Everyone else walked, an odyssey of roughly 740 miles. After arriving, Gee only lived for 5 years or so, and his nephew inherited the plantation. Being in debt, he was forced to sell to the Pettways, whose surname is still carried by the members of the Gee’s Bend quilting collective, with Maryanne Pettway being the most recognized member. Some time ago, Jereann met a tall, white man in the grocery store who mentioned that he had read Belle, The Last Mule in Gee’s Bend, which featured the Pettways. He was related, and his heritage had happened to cross paths with the deeply rooted quilt community in Warrenton, NC.

On our way out of the Hendrick House, Jereann pointed out a quilt with a history of WVSP-Radio Warrenton. In 1976, Valeria and Jim Lee founded WVSP, a non-commercial radio station that broadcast from the small town of Warrenton, North Carolina, about one hour north of Durham on Interstate 85. From 1976 until WVSP’s closing in 1986, the Lees focused their energies on using radio as a tool for political and cultural empowerment in rural northeastern North Carolina.

As Valeria explained in a 2007 interview she and Jim launched WVSP as a vehicle for “community development…[and] justice work.” The station devoted its programming to progressive reporting on political and social issues and a wide range of musics, most prominently African American genres like jazz and blues, which rarely received airtime on commercial radio in the 1970s and 1980s South. She pointed out a Durham jazz great, Brother Yusuf Salim, who played on Chapel Hill Street, in a small jazz club called “The Salon,” where Jereann and others would go.

“We would buy bean pies and listen to the music.” -Jereann

A small picture of Jereann is embroidered into the piece. She’s wearing large, 70’s style glasses, and is flashing a laughing grin at the camera from the radio studio where she hosted a children’s show called “Tickle Me Think.” She reminisced on the station,

“I also did a prison and justice program. Valeria and Jim Lee started it, and we all did a little bit of everything.”

Jereann King Johnson at WVSP

Her stories and our conversation had moved through many topics, and while we had visited to learn about quilts, a broader story of community, protest, communication, and fellowship had emerged. But, really, that seems to be the story of quilts, a craft born of thrift. After all, what could be more revolutionary than poor people using what they have to create comfort, warmth, and meaning? For those interested in learning more about Warrenton, its quilts are a good place to start. Let them take you where they will.

Learn more about Jereann, her work, and Warrenton at our Hello NC podcast below:

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