Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minneapolis exhibit puts a spin on traditional African American quilting

A quilt with photos of Black liberation depicted
The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery has two exhibits running in February 2023: Black Liberation and the Community Quilty Project.
Courtesy of Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery

Quilting is an art form in many cultures, but a new exhibit at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum in Minneapolis features a new spin on the traditional art form as it's practiced in Black communities.

To hear more about these unique artworks that tell compelling stories — MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked to Tina Burnside. She is co-founder and curator of the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: You know that quilting is an art form in many cultures. But a new exhibit at the Minnesota African-American Heritage Museum in Minneapolis features a new spin on the traditional art form as it's practiced in Black communities. To hear more about these unique artworks that tell compelling stories, I'm joined by Tina Burnside.

She's co-founder and curator of the Minnesota African-American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis. Tina, welcome to the program.

TINA BURNSIDE: Hi, Cathy. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Well, quilting, as you know, has long brought mostly women together in community. What was the inspiration behind this exhibit called Community Quilt?

TINA BURNSIDE: Well, I wanted to think of something to reconnect the community. And so we were thinking about, what type of activity could we do that would bring people back together? Because after isolation from the COVID lockdowns and the pandemic and then also the trauma that the community has gone through from the murder of George Floyd and other Black people by police, we wanted to do something to bring people back together.

And usually, people connect around something creative and connect around art. And I like quilts. And I had seen other community quilt projects, where people from all backgrounds, all races, all genders, they just come together and connect around an activity. And so I thought that that would be a really good project.

And so we came up with this idea. And we got a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. And then we usually table at different community events over the summer. And so this time at our tabling events, we set up quilting stations. And we just invited the community to come sit down and design individual quilt squares around various themes that we had picked.

And so the themes were like Black History, Black liberation, joy, family, love, gun violence and healing, and Juneteenth freedom. And then people could do their interpretation of what those themes meant to them on their individual quilt squares.

CATHY WURZER: I bet the results were gorgeous.

TINA BURNSIDE: Yeah. So it turned out to be really amazing. We had 10 different events. And we had hired artists to help the community members if they had trouble coming up with ideas about what to do with those themes. And so we had artists who were out at the events. And then we had quilters who would [INAUDIBLE] events. And we got 14 quilts out of those events. And about 350 people participated over the summer.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Did you need to sew, by the way?

TINA BURNSIDE: I didn't do any sewing, but we did have quilters-- we had quilters who would then-- after each event, we would gather all the quilt squares from individuals who created them. And then we had three quilters who would put them all together.

CATHY WURZER: Now, what about the background, the history of quilting in the Black community? Where did it come from? Because I've seen some beautiful, beautiful quilts dating back decades.

TINA BURNSIDE: Yeah. Well, quilting, as you know, it's like a long tradition in many cultures and in the Black community. It started here in America with enslaved women who had to make quilts for white people. But then in their spare time, they would also make quilts for themselves and for their families. Because quilts were both decorative for home decor, but then they're also practical for bedding and for warmth.

And so enslaved women would make these quilts. And they would use the scraps that were left over from the quilts that they had to make for white people. And so they would do strip piecing, where you had like the scraps and strips and make these beautiful quilts. And then also storytelling would be represented in the quilts.

And so there would be stories about family and story about traditions. And so that's why we also want to go with themes surrounding Black history and Black liberation in these quilts to carry on that storytelling tradition. And then people could use scraps of fabric. We also had fabric paint and fabric markers and appliques. And so just kind of carrying on that tradition and then also introducing people to the history.

CATHY WURZER: By the way, do you have a special family quilt?

TINA BURNSIDE: Yeah, I do. I have a quilt that's my great grandmother's quilt. She had given it to my dad. And then I got it from my dad when I went to college. And so then I still have that quilt. And so I used it a lot in college. So it's kind of worn at the edges and everything. So I don't use it anymore, but I have it stored away in a hope chest. But it's very special and has a lot of meaning because it's been passed down from family member to family member.

CATHY WURZER: Well worn and well loved. So I know you don't have a lot of collections at the museum. You're not a collecting museum, if that makes sense. Am I right about that?

TINA BURNSIDE: Yeah. We just started in 2018, so we're very new museum. And so we don't have also storage. So we don't do a lot of collecting. What we do when we do have artifacts, we usually get them on loan from people. And then once we're done with that exhibit, then we give them back to people. But we have a lot of information, a lot of text and a lot of images, but not a lot of 3D artifacts.

CATHY WURZER: Now, you have a new exhibit for Black History Month-- Black liberation, you mentioned that with the quilt Black liberation, dismantling racism in Minnesota, the 1800s to the 1960s. And there are a lot of stories of some courageous people who've worked on civil rights in Minnesota. I want to go back just briefly here to 1857 and talk about Emily Grey.

She was one of the first Black residents of what was early Minneapolis. I know Ms. Grey was an abolitionist who worked against slavery. How did she secure what was considered a major win in Minnesota when there was a lot of pro-slavery sentiment at the time?

TINA BURNSIDE: Yeah, Emily Grey, she's an amazing woman. And that's an amazing story. She and her husband, Ralph, were a prominent Black couple in St. Anthony. And they were business owners and also abolitionists. And in 1860, she met Elisa Winston, who was an enslaved woman from Mississippi, who was here in the state with her owner, who their family had come to Minnesota. Because a lot of Southern slaveholders would come to Minnesota to vacation in the summers.

And so she was here staying at the Winslow House, where a lot of the Southern slaveholders would stay. And so Emily Grey and other abolitionists had filed a complaint in court asserting that Eliza Winston was being restrained against her liberty by her master. And so while they went to court, the family that Eliza Winston was owned by, the Christmases, they had moved her from the Winslow House to a cottage at Lake Harriet.

And so Emily Grey and a group of armed men and the Hennepin County Sheriff went to the cottage to free Eliza. And they told the sheriff that she wanted to be free. And the sheriff asked her if you want to be free, and she said, yes. So then the sheriff took everyone to court to a hearing. And then the judge ruled in Eliza's favor and granted her her freedom.

But then after the court proceeding, a white mob protested, and they broke into the Grey's home looking for Eliza. However, she was staying with another abolitionist, but then they found out where she was staying. So then the mob went over to that home. And they threw rocks at the home and broke windows and tried to force their way in. But luckily, Eliza was able to escape. And she fled to Canada.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, that's quite a story. And that's one of the stories in this new exhibit. Wow. Before you go, I'd like to know if you had a magic wand, what else would you want to see in the museum here in terms of exhibits that you really would love to have in the museum, say, in the next few years?

TINA BURNSIDE: Well, there's so much unknown Black history in Minnesota. And so there's a lot of untold stories out there. But one that I would really like to see is about the Black press. Because there has been a long tradition of the Black press in America, but also in Minnesota. And there were several newspapers at one time in the late 1800s and the early 1900s.

And I'd really like to see that story told, leading from there up into like, we still have the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and the Insight News. But there's been a very, very strong history. And so I'd love to see that. And then also, I'm a former journalist, so, of course, I have to have an interest in that.

CATHY WURZER: OK. I would like to see that too. Tina, thank you so much for your time today. Tina Burnside is the curator and co-founder of the Minnesota African-American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis. The Community Quilt Project that we talked about at first is up through July the 1st. You can get more information online at maahmg.org.

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Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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