By Rick Kennedy, managing editor
For over an hour Thursday morning, the Pleasant Hill Quilters both entertained and educated over 200 students from Clinton Primary with tales of intrigue, danger, codes, and courage that would be worthy of any modern day spy novel.
Only, it was all true and from the real-live stories of Harriet Tubman and the fabled “Underground Railroad” as nine retired teachers and professionals, mostly hailing from Texas, gave a stirring history lesson, completely costumed in the dress of the 1860s period as part of Black History activities this week at UA-Hope.
Mixing live singing with replica quilts and story-telling, Flo Stephenson and her group of “Quilters” told how many quilts were designed with embedded codes, mostly with 10 major patterns, and how the patterns were a language, telling escaping slaves of safety, dress codes, and nearby “conductors,” the leaders of the underground railroad.
Stephenson said the group, which primarily live in or around Linden, Texas, started performing and story-telling in churches around 2005.
“It all started off as a Black History program for our church, and what happened was people started coming to see it as we went to different churches and said ‘this is History. Black History is American History, and you need to take this everywhere,” Stephenson recalled.
The Pleasant Hill Quilters, as they became known, have been touring schools and universities since that time. The Quilters have been as far as Washington DC and Tuskegee, Alabama, a one-time home of another historic figure in Black History, Booker T. Washington.
Stephenson, herself, owns an 1860s-vintage quilt with the famed “Monkey Wench” pattern, one of the 10 major patterns, which was recognized on the famous “Antique Road Show” series in Baton Rouge.
Black History month, February, is always a busy time for the Quilters group, which Stephenson says numbers 14 women; nine traveled to Hope for Tuesday morning’s presentation. The group travels together by bus, dedicated to the group.
“This is our third trip up here in Hope; the people are always very nice,” Stephenson said, noting the Quilters were in town for one of the Arkansas Extension events.
While Tuesday’s performance was geared towards Clinton Primary’s elementary-aged students, Stephenson said that the Quilters have performed for college classes and adults as well.
Tuesday, Stephenson surprised the Clinton students with a “pop quiz,” later saying “I just wanted to make sure the little darlings were awake.”
“The kids, they like the songs; they like the costumes,” she said.
Adult audiences, she says, connect on an individual level, often telling the Quilters group about their own relatives and personal history. “Some of them will tear up, and apologize. Or they will talk about a relative, who lived in the time period.”
Stephenson said she hopes the current group of women can continue to tour and give performances another five years or so.
“I would love for us to do 20 years, and then, I would love for another group of younger women to carry on,” she said.
Although February is the group’s busy month, Stephenson said the group travels and performs year around.
“I always tell people that we are black, 365 days a year,” she said.
By Rick Kennedy, managing editor