Quilting History

Art, history, literature — the Heather Andrea Williams: Quilting History exhibit coming to the Cary Arts Center combines them all.

Williams, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, has married history and craft with her selection of handmade quilts in an exhibit that runs from Aug. 31 to Sept. 23. Also an author, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery shares the stories of those who struggled to find their identities.

“My family is from Jamaica where it’s 85 degrees on average, so there is no quilting,” Williams said. Yet she was drawn to the art, teaching herself from books and magazines in the 1980s. Eventually, she got bored with standard patterns.

“I went to grad school in American Studies at Yale and was focusing on African-American history, specifically the 19th century,” she said. “As I was doing research for my dissertation, the history started to seep into the quilts. I didn’t sit down and plan it. I would see an image of a former slave — and those are really rare — and they were very compelling, so I wanted to integrate them”

She weaves their stories into the designs, using fabric to tell the tales of former slaves who searched for their lost family members, usually unsuccessfully. Some of her quilts even integrate handwriting from personal plea letters, which were common until the early 1900s.

Today, Williams believes African-Americans are still faced with challenges in the modern search for family — genealogical research. “Very few people can go back very far in slavery to find many relatives. Those people didn’t have last names much of the time. They don’t show up in the census until 1870,” she said.

At the close of the exhibition, Williams will host a book signing and discussion at 3 p.m. on Sept. 23. An artist’s reception runs tomorrow night from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, contact the Cary Arts Center, located at 101 Dry Avenue.


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