Pictured above is a portrait of entrepreneur, civil rights activist and benefactor, Mary Ellen Pleasant who made a name and a fortune for herself in Gold Rush era San Francisco. Her timeline from 1814 to 1904 begins in racial slavery as an indentured servant girl with no formal education. She ascended to a self-made millionaire, amassing a fortune in her lifetime of over $30 million, ($900 million today).
Organized by historian, artist, and curator Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, “Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West” at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, consists of 50 pictorial quilts created by members of Women of Color Quilters Network, a group founded by Mazloomi in 1985.
Mazloomi’s statement at the exhibition entrance-
American history is incomplete without the stories of African American men and women, from our enslaved ancestors to our societal challenges. The role of African Americans in the movement toward westward expansion has been largely overlooked. This exhibition of original pictorial quilts brings into focus the rich and diverse stories and achievements of Blacks in American western history. The timeline begins with Esteban’s 1528 arrival in the West and continues through the Civil Rights Movement.
At the end of Reconstruction in the South, discrimination and segregation caused African Americans to seek opportunities where there was less prejudice. In the 1800s, they moved by the thousands to the American West. Some went West as slaves, while free African American men joined the United States Army or became ranch hands, fur traders, cowboys, or miners.
Why quilts? Quilts and quilt making are important to American, and Black culture in particular. The art form was historically one of the few mediums accessible to marginalized groups to tell their own story, to provide warmth for their families, and to empower them with a voice through cloth. Using quilts to tell these stories accentuates the intersections of African Americans in the Western frontier while at once informing about the art form and its role in Black history. It is this often unknown and underappreciated shared reality that must be voiced if we are ever to truly value the unique contributions diverse groups make to the fabric of our nation.
Two more selections from the exhibition are below, although it was very hard to choose which quilts to highlight- there are so many great ones to choose from.
At the time of his retirement in 1997, California journalist Thomas C. Fleming was the nation’s oldest Black journalist with the longest consecutive period of publication.
Information from the Museum’s wall plaque on Stagecoach Mary–
Mary Fields- also known as Stagecoach Mary, Black Mary and White Crow-became a Wild West legend because she was the second woman and the first African American woman star route mail carrier in the United States.
Born into slavery and freed after the Civil War, she worked as a servant and laundress for families on riverboats before moving to Montana in 1885. A decade later she became a star route carrier, delivering mail using a stagecoach. She drove the 15-mile route from Cascade to Saint Peter’s Mission, Montana, from 1895 to 1903. Nicknamed Stagecoach Mary, she was known for her reliability and speed.
The six-foot-tall Fields was a quick-shooting and hard drinking mail carrier who wore men’s clothing and flaunted a revolver and a rifle. Locals praised her kindness and generosity, and schools in the town of Cascade were closed each year to celebrate her birthday. Cascade’s mayor granted her an exemption to enter saloons after Montana passed a law forbidding women from entering these establishments.
The impressive quilts on view educate viewers with stories of individuals and events in African American history that may not have previously been familiar, and present new perspectives on those that are. It’s a wonderful way to utilize a visual medium to captivate, inform, and often inspire.
This exhibition closes on 1/8/2023.