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Recently found quilt tells the story of a long-gone historic Detroit neighborhood

The signature quilt hanging in a museum display. The pattern is made of blue and white fabric with 20 X-shaped blocks. There are embroidered names, telephone numbers and addresses in each, done in red and blue thread.
Sophia Saliby
The signature quilt hanging in a museum display. The pattern is made of blue and white fabric with 20 X-shaped blocks. There are embroidered names, telephone numbers and addresses in each, done in red and blue thread.

Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood thrived as a center of African American life and culture in the first half of the 20th century, until the construction of a highway and government-mandated redevelopment all but wiped it out.

Now, a recently discovered quilt is providing a peek into what life there was like more than 50 years ago.

The minute Marsha MacDowell saw it in an online sale in 2018, 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.

"It is in a location where urban renewal in the 1960s pretty much took down every residential building," MacDowell said. "If you go on Google Maps, what you see are vacant lots."

One of the few buildings still standing is the Zion Congregational Church of God in 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 night club scene.

In 2021, MacDowell decided to post photos of the quilt to a church Facebook page.

"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.'"

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.

Marsha MacDowell says the blanket is what's known as a "signature" or "autograph" quilt because this group of women inscribed their names on it. Women like Mrs. Mollie Mason embroidered their names, along with their addresses, in Detroit, Michigan.
/ Sophia Saliby
/
Sophia Saliby
Marsha MacDowell says the blanket is what's known as a "signature" or "autograph" quilt because this group of women inscribed their names on it. Women like Mrs. Mollie Mason embroidered their names, along with their addresses, in Detroit, Michigan.

"The most exciting thing for me was to know that some artifact that my mother had been a part of still existed," Quinn said.

Quinn, who's in her nineties 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 1940s.

"She found her niche when the sewing circle started. She was always making something and having us do embroidery," she said.

A year after that first post, in April 2022, MacDowell worked with leaders of the church to bring together people like Quinn to reflect on their close-knit community.

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, such as when she and her friends were old enough to sneak out of service to stop by the local candy store.

MacDowell says the quilt is more than just a blanket or even a piece of folk art. It's a piece of history.

"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," MacDowell said.

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.

"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," Music said.

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.

Copyright 2023 WKAR Public Media

Sophia Saliby

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