In 1974, Jeanette Gates formed a group of fifteen women to sew a quilt honoring the heritage and contributions of the Black community in the history of the United States. Over the next two years, timed to coincide with the United States Bicentennial in 1976, she and other Black women from Portland sewed a quilt composed of 30 fabric squares. Each square honors a Black individual or pivotal moment in history, including famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass; America’s first Black, published poet, Phillis Wheatley; the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which outlawed racial segregation in education; and one square each for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, each conferring additional rights for Black citizens.
Upon its completion, numerous institutions displayed the quilt, including Harvard University and the U.S. Department of State. It was exhibited at, and then donated to, the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) by the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt Committee, which was composed of the quilters. At the opening of the exhibit, Kathryn Hall Bogle cut the ribbon as an honor for being the committee member “with the longest years in Oregon.” Bogle (1906–2003) was a social justice activist, social worker, and journalist.
Sylvia Gates Carlisle, daughter of the late Jeanette Gates, was the youngest of the quilters and is the only surviving committee member. She remembers her mother being active in ensuring Black history was celebrated, and worked to have it taught in Portland Public Schools. According to a recent online article by The Skanner, after winning a discrimination lawsuit against Georgia Pacific in 1970, Gates used the settlement to bring scholars on Black history to Portland to educate schoolteachers. At the exhibit opening celebration at OHS in 1976, Gates proclaimed, “We hereby introduce a Bicentennial Quilt vibrating with history — pulsating the vitality of liberation and democracy. Here is our Afro-American Heritage; of this we are proud…”
This month-long exhibition is a collaboration with Portland Textile Month, which according to their website, “aims to galvanize the local textile community for a month-long festival of events centered around knowledge-sharing and cross-pollination between enthusiasts, artists, businesses, and institutions. They provide an open platform to engage and share ideas, histories, knowledge, experiences, and practices across myriad cultures, viewpoints, and generations.” Portland Textile Month is focusing on the theme of “repair & reuse” for its third annual festival, prioritizing diversity and inclusion.
The Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt will be on view in the pavilion of the Oregon Historical Society from October 1 to November 2, 2020. Admission is free to view the quilt, but required to view the remainder of the museum’s exhibitions. Multnomah County residents receive free admission every day with valid proof of residence.