In July 2022, I had the profound experience to view the quilts from the Sacred Ally Quilt Ministry at the local Congregational Church in Wakefield, NH. My oldest sister, Marilyn, an avid quilter, had just passed away from pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that eventually "steals one’s breath." I found myself not only captured by the artistry of the quilts but also the powerful and scarring message—I can’t breathe!
In August, I reached out to my colleague, Alex Girard, an immensely talented graphic designer in the Department of Art & Design at Southern CT State University. I told him about the quilt exhibit and asked him if he thought we could bring this to our campus, and within a month we were making plans for what would subsequently become several events for the spring semester (2023) centered on the quilts and their message.
Just after spring break, Alex and I were joined by Cort Sierpinski, the Director of the Buley Art Gallery, and Amanda Ward, the secretary from the Department of History and a graduate in Design Studies. We eagerly awaited the arrival of Reverend Mark Koyama with the quilts from the Sacred Ally Quilt Ministry, to prepare the pop-up exhibition in the gallery of ten quilts that memorialize the last words spoken by George Floyd in the last 8 minutes of his life. The eleventh quilt and most recent is a stunning cross (the Resurrection Cross) that was positioned directly opposite the gallery’s doorway. The project is a collaborative effort begun during the pandemic by members of the congregations of nine United Church
of Christ churches across New Hampshire. Accompanying the exhibition was the documentary film, Stitch Breathe, Speak: The George Floyd Quilts by Chris Owen and Jan Sutcliffe, that chronicles the creation of the quilts.
After viewing the film, we appreciated the welcoming comments by our provost Robert Prezant, and the moving comments by Reverend Koyama. He reminded us of the guidance of Dr. Harriet Ward, a member of the New Hampshire UCC’s Racial Justice Mission Group, which had to give approval for the project, and was instrumental in bringing the ministry to an audience. She encouraged Rev. Koyama to ‘see’ the “project” as more, “a sustained service of faith—a ministry.” An article from the Yale Divinity School where Rev. Koyama is an alum reports that “Harriet made the case that the quilts should never be in storage. If you put them in storage, then they’re not alive, they’re not doing their work.” And so Southern is the first university to put the quilts on display, and as one attendee noted “to raise our
moral awareness and challenge our commitment to activism in the name of social justice.”
At Southern, we knew the quilts needed to be more than an exhibit, a catalyst for discussion whether in the gallery space or the virtual space. The exhibit was accompanied by a virtual panel, Anti-Racism and Public History, on Tuesday, March 28th moderated by our adjunct professor and Fulbright scholar, Daisha Brabham ('17) who joined in conversation with the documentary filmmakers and Jenny Heikkila Díaz, CT Council for the Social Studies Professional Learning Coordinator. Daisha asked about allyship, the role of film, art, and material culture in the discussion of race and history, and the responsibility of public and educational institutions to use a variety of sources to preserve our collective memory.
On Thursday, March 30th, Diane Ariza, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, moderated an interdisciplinary discussion, Antiracist Teaching Panel, with Patty Bode (ART), Siobhan Carter-David (HIS), Steven Hoffler (SWK), Nicole Madu (CULA), and Jessica Powell (CULA). The panelists and several members of the audience noted the significance of the quilt exhibition as a vehicle for quiet
contemplation but also empathetic conversation which can lead to more allies for racial justice. Many addressed not only the importance of having those ‘difficult’ conversations in the university classroom but also training new teachers to structure lessons that allow for representation, for ‘being heard’, and for ‘being seen’. ‘Real’ history does not exist in neat packages and neither does ‘real’ life so whether we are mentoring new teachers, social workers, artists, or historians first words need to be ones of empathy. Southern is proud to be the first institution of higher education to exhibit these quilts that so appropriately reflect its social justice mission.
Christine M. Petto
Department of History, Professor and Chair