AILSA CHANG, HOST: In Detroit, the neighborhood of Black Bottom thrived as a center of African American life in the first half of the 20th century. Then, the construction of a highway and government-mandated redevelopment all but wiped the neighborhood out, but a recently discovered quilt is providing a peek into what life in Black Bottom was like more than 50 years ago. Sophia Saliby of member station WKAR in East Lansing reports.
SOPHIA SALIBY, BYLINE: It might have been a simple quilt, but the minute Marsha MacDowell saw it in an online sale, she knew it had to come home to Michigan. Quilted in blue-and-white fabric, the design includes 20 X-shaped blocks. Embroidered on each are names like Sister Roberta Wilson and Mrs. Mollie Mason, along with addresses and telephone numbers. As someone who grew up in Detroit, the Michigan State University Museum curator of folk arts and quilt studies recognized the street names.
MARSHA MACDOWELL: It is in a location where urban renewal in the 1960s pretty much took down every residential building, and if you go on Google Map, what you see are vacant lots.
SALIBY: One of the few buildings still standing is the Zion Congregational Church of God and Christ on Mack Avenue. The nearly century-old church is near what was once Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. The community, which grew from African Americans migrating from the South, included dozens of Black-owned businesses and a well-known music and nightclub scene. In 2021, MacDowell decided to post photos of the quilt to a church Facebook page.
MACDOWELL: We were flooded with responses that – I know this person. This is my mother. This is my aunt. This is a person I knew in the Zion Church.
SALIBY: Someone who saw that post got in contact with Reather Quinn to share the news. They had recognized the name of her mother, Adell Anderson, on the quilt.
REATHER QUINN: The most exciting thing for me was to know that some artifact that my mother had been a part of still existed.
SALIBY: Quinn, who’s in her 90s now, remembers her mother being involved in a sewing circle with other women of the church. She’s positive the quilt was made for a fundraiser sometime in the ’40s.
QUINN: She found her niche when the sewing circle started. She was always making something and having us do embroidery.
SALIBY: A year after that first post in April of last year, MacDowell worked with leaders of the church to bring together people like Quinn to reflect on their close-knit community.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Back in those days…
SALIBY: Quinn called it a reunion of sorts. They remembered the sewing circles, the women who ran them and how church life wasn’t just about church.
QUINN: How we were old enough to sneak out of the services and go to the candy store.
SALIBY: MacDowell says the quilt is more than just a blanket or even a piece of folk art. It’s a piece of history.
MACDOWELL: This quilt is a textual document of what was a thriving neighborhood and a thriving relationship amongst those individuals whose names were inscribed on the quilt.
SALIBY: Marsha Music is a current member of the congregation. She says it’s significant the women of the church put their names on the quilt.
MARSHA MUSIC: There was a part of them that wanted to make sure it was known that we made this, and it has stood the test of time.
SALIBY: MacDowell is continuing to dig into the origins of the quilt and its creators and hopes to use recently released census data to learn more. For NPR News, I’m Sophia Saliby in East Lansing.