Please join me in welcoming Sherry A. Byrd as today’s guest blogger. She shares with us her family’s extensive quilting history spanning six generations. Thanks Sherry for being a guest!
My name is Sherry A. Byrd. As a child I was introduced to quilt making via my maternal grandmother, who came from a long lineage of quilt makers that were tied in with the Edward “Ned” Titus Family.
In 1852, a planter by the name of Simeon Lake, his wife, Nancy, and their children migrated to Texas from South Carolina, via Arkansas. They traveled over land in four wagons pulled by 10 oxen. They brought with them five slaves, Edward “Ned” Titus, his wife Chlorie (Dunbar) Titus and their three children. The male slaves helped with the outside work and the females did all the cooking and housework. The household chores consisted of cleaning, washing, ironing, sewing, cooking, and quilt making, etc.
Ned and Chlorie had eleven children. One was named Walter. When Walter matured, he chose for his wife… Miss Patsie Reddick. They became the parents of one daughter, Ellen Anna Titus who was born in 1884.
Patsie was considered to be a good housekeeper, cook and mother. She was talented at quilt making. She had all the skills a man was taught to look for in a woman. She taught all these skills to her daughter, Ellen Anna, at a very early age. Ellen Anna wed at the age of 15 to Willie Anderson Durham. Her mother died in 1925 ???. They had eleven offspring of which four were daughters. Their names were Clara born in 1903, Lillie born in 1904, Gladys born in 1906, and Katie Mae born in 1917.
Ellen Anna followed in the footsteps of her mother and trained her female offspring the same skills she had received when she was maturing. Her youngest daughter, Katie Mae Durham-Tatum, says her mother started the training as early as eight years old. This turned out to be a wise decision on her mother’s part, because Katie Mae’s mom died when she was twelve years old. Katie Mae married at the age of 15 and assisted her father to raise her two younger brothers, Alonzo and Harold. She says she was completely on her own and was forced to make covers for her bed, because she couldn’t afford to buy store bought ones. But the fact that she loved quilt making made the chore enjoyable. She considered knowing how to do so as a blessing.
Patsie Reddick and her daughter, Ellen Anna, established a solid foundational legacy of African American M-provisational quilt making that has survived the rigors of time through five and hopefully six generations.
The Titus family lineage has culminated into the creation of a series of reversible story quilts, which Patsie’s great, great granddaughter, Sherry A. Byrd works on passionately, in her spare time.
I, (Sherry) was born and raised in Fairfield, Texas, which is approximately an hours’ drive south of Dallas, Texas and also approximately an hours’ drive west of Waco, Texas. Fairfield is the county seat of Freestone. The town’s centennial year was 1951… the year I was born.
As a child I was introduced to quilt making via my maternal grandmother. We called her “Big Mama”; her real name was Gladys Celia Durham-Henry ( b.1906-d.1996). Of all the girls in her family, Gladys was the only one who bore children. Her sisters had none.
I did not learn to quilt by actually making one of my own when younger, but instead, for the first eighteen years of my life I observed quietly as my grandmother, created beautiful folkart pieces. Occasionally, she commandeered my assistance in tacking (tying strings) when adding a lining to a top to complete one of her amazing creations.
Quilt making at the time I was maturing was on the decline, not only in Texas, but nationwide. No longer was it mandatory for young girls to learn the skill so as to be prepared to keep their families warm in the wintertime.Yet because of my close association with my grandmother and her strict adherence to, as well as, love of the traditional skills she had been taught at an early age, she had a strong influence upon me and molded many of my viewpoints in life, on quilting and various other things.
I was always curious about sewing and couldn’t resist the wonderful sounds made by my grandmothers’ old Singer sewing machine. Nor could I resist the beautiful colorful cloths used in the quilts and the erratic M-provisational designs of the quilts always captivated my attention. Tying strings was boring, but watching a quilt come together was indeed, very fascinating. So to avoid having to tie too many strings, I usually ended up just passing through my grandmother’s work area…to take a peek…on my way to do other favorite things, such as sneaking real chicken eggs from the hen house to put in my mud cakes…while “Big Mama” was busy quilting.
I always wanted to make something pretty… just like “Big Mama”, but it wasn’t going to happen right then…unless of course it was the doll clothes I could make when “Big Mama” gave me cloth scraps and a needle and thread.
In May 1969, I graduated from High School. In the Fall, I entered Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. I graduated in 1972 with a BA in History (My major) and Art (My minor).
While attending SHSU I met my husband, Curtis Byrd, Sr. We married in 1973. After that I became very busy with having children (9 total), training and raising them physically and spiritually (Jehovah’ Witnesses), and helping my husband provide for us with his recycling business and other various types of employment. There was still no time for quilt making!!!!
1984 brought a dramatic change to my life. Our seventh child, a son, was stillborn. To cope with the stress, grief and depression, I turned to quilt making. I started with small crib-sized quilts and gave them away to friends who had recently given birth. When the projects proved successful, I decided to tackle a full-sized quilt. I did not even get it completed before Curtis (my husband), declared that this quilt was “his quilt”….so it was named “Dad’s quilt”. It continues to decorate our bed, every winter, even after approximately 27 years.
In 1986, I came across an ad in a supermarket tabloid paper that simply read… “I buy quilts, old and new”. I called the phone number listed and made acquaintance with Mr. Eli Leon, a collector and scholar. He was researching African American quilts. This relationship directed my quilt making on a journey that has been, and still is, a wonderful one.
Eli bought some tops from me and had them hand quilted by other African American quilt makers who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. He then curated the exhibit “Who’d A Thought It: Improvisation In African American Quiltmaking. This exhibit was groundbreaking in that it traveled to 30 venues in twenty states and placed the host, Museum of Craft and Folkart in San Francisco, on the map as a major player in the museum world.
I introduced Eli to my mother and grandmother. He traveled from California to Texas to purchase quilts and tops from both of them. He also purchased tops from my daughter, Bara. These quilts were exhibited as a group at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, in the exhibit “No Two Alike” in 1996-1997, during the same time that the Olympic Games were taking place there. This was also the same year my grandmother died. How proud she must have been to know that her quilts were being hung in a museum. Never in all their days had she or her sisters dared even to dream of such a thing taking place in their lifetimes.
The success of these exhibits stirred in me the desire to know why so many people were becoming so interested in throw together quilts. So I launched my own research into the topic. It led me to the discovery of a wonderful and fantastic family legacy of quilt making.
During the research period, wonderful and amazing events began to unfold which added to the richness of the experience. In 1997, British Airways commissioned fifty ethnic artworks from around the world to have painted and displayed as liveries on 300+ Boeing jet tail fins. They wanted to create a new image for themselves. My M-provisational abstract quilt, “Champaigne” was chosen as one of those artworks. It became a part of British Airways “SkyHigh Gallery”.
Next in 1998, Texas Folklife Resources Gallery director, Pat Jasper, contacted my mother, Laverne Brackens and me. She curated the exhibit “Quilts of Color:Three Generations in an Afro-Texan Family”. This exhibit included quilts by Gladys Henry, Katie Mae Tatum, Laverne Brackens and Sherry A. Byrd.
It included precision made, as well as, M-provisational abstract quilts. The Titus Family speaks two quilt making languages fluently.
There were four apprentices who made quilts for the exhibits’ workshop. They were Sarah Byrd, Cephas Byrd, Nikki Brackens and Tysha Brackens. They are hopefully a part of the sixth generation of upcoming quilt makers that is formulating in the Titus family at present.
At the “Quilts of Color” workshop, September 18, 1999, I presented for the first time, the story quilt “Homegrown/Handmade/Passed-On Family” quilt or just “Homegrown”. This reversible story quilt was composed as a result of the research that I had compiled previously. I worked on it progressively for close to three years and it was not complete when shown at the workshop.
“Homegrown” chronicles the history and background of the Titus Family, basically from Africa through the year 2000.
The crowd loved it, even though it was nowhere near complete. The quilt had such a great impact that, Suzanne Seriff, a guest curator attending the workshop for the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (which by the way was also not complete at that time), invited me to exhibit the story quilt at the inaugural opening of the temporary exhibit “It Ain’t Braggin’ If It’s True”. By the time the two years wait was up, I had managed to bring the story quilt to a relative completion.
The crowds loved it once again, as the following quotes reveal:
July 2, 2001
“….I cannot tell you how much the visitors to the museum have raved over your quilt. So many stop, and look and study it, and try to read the script and tease the stories out of the images! It is really something else!”
Suzanne Seriff, Guest Curator
“It Ain’t Braggin’ If It’s True”
Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum
Dear Mrs. Byrd
“……The exhibit has been a great success…thanks to lenders such as yourself for sharing artifacts with a wider audience….”
“……….We are pleased to have had your wonderful quilt in our exhibit. “It Ain’t Braggin’ If It’s True”….thank you for your participation in our exhibit. Over 500,000 visitors have come to see the museum since we opened last April…”
Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum
The greatest honor resulting from the Bob Bullock Museum experience, was the fact that President George W. Bush, First Lady, Laura Bush, Mrs. Jan Bullock, governor Rick Perry and wife, former Texas governors, Preston Smith, Dolph Briscoe, and Bill Clements, along with a crowd of 500 Texas state government officials and their family members, were among the over 500,000+ visitors who had the opportunity to view “Homegrown” at the inaugural opening of the state museum. African American Throw Together M-provisational quilts had indeed come a long way in the history making process, from covering slave beds to works of Art on museum walls!!!! It was truly amazing and a wonder to behold.
Meanwhile, I had been working on a second story quilt project for about 20 years, at least since 1986. I was collecting patchwork blocks from individual family quilt makers to create a reversible sampler and story quilt to commemorate the legacy of sewing skills in our family. The tradition of quilt making had been around so long and the passing down of the skills from generation to generation needed…as far as I was concerned, some kind of recognition. This story quilt became “Jazz With A Needle And Thread” or just “Jazz”. It was featured at the five-year anniversary of the Texas State History Museum in 2006 in the exhibit “It (Still) Ain’t Braggin'”. “Jazz” captivated and dazzled an audience of 30 children and 40 adults on July 26, 2006 at a “High Noon Talk”. The “Tell and Show” Lecture was declared the best of the series of High Noon talks that had been given at the museum that summer.
I am presently working to complete my third reversible story quilt, titled “Lone Star Braggin’ Rights: It’s A Texas Thang!!!” Maybe it too will out perform its two predecessors with its beauty, historical significance and charm. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Meanwhile I’ll try make myself content with recording and blogging about my family’s quilting history and that of Freestone County as a whole. To keep up with the Titus family quilt makers and others from Freestone County, Texas….be sure to visit us regularly at our blog.
And that brings us pretty well up to date on my quilt making adventures. Thanks so much to Michele Foster for inviting me to share my story with you as an audience. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. It’s such a privilege to be able to share our legacy with a wider appreciative audience. Thanks.