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'Underground Railroad Quilt Exhibit' on display in Downtown Racine shop windows

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Wagon Wheel quilt by Pat Buremiester

"Wagon Wheel," made by Pat Buremiester

RACINE — The Racine Arts Council and Real Racine are hosting an “Underground Railroad Quilt Exhibit” in Downtown Racine shop windows through Oct. 31.

Ozella’s Quilt cards are available at Downtown Racine Corp., Racine Art Museum and each downtown business.

Ozella McDaniel Williams, a Black quilter from Charleston, S.C., was the keeper of an important part of American history. Williams knew a secret code of quilt patterns which was in jeopardy of being lost. This code was used as a map to instruct slaves fleeing north toward freedom on the Underground Railroad. On May 11, 1996, Williams revealed this family code to Jacqueline Tobin who was told to write this down: The Monkey Wrench turns the Wagon Wheel toward Canada on a Bear’Paw trail to the Crossroads. Once they got to the crossroads, they dug a Log Cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and Bow Ties and go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange double wedding rings. Flying Geese stay on the Drunkard’s Path and follow the Stars.

In 2001, Kathi Wilson, Racine Arts Council executive director, had an idea to make this code into a community project by creating replica quilts of each one of the quilt patterns from Williams’ story. Community members gathered on Saturday mornings to piece and hand quilt each one of the many quilts. Many of them did not know each other and came from different cultures. They gathered at homes and sat in small circles with the quilt in their laps telling family stories, as they laughed and cried together becoming very dear friends along the stitching path.

Vicki Madsen shared, “I had not hand quilted in years and I learned so many details about the UGRR.”

They sewed a nine patch quilt with civil war fabrics and tied the center of each square like they would have done in those past days.

“Some of the warmest memories of my life happened with those women,” stated Marlene Wilson.

All 11 quilts are registered in the Wisconsin Quilt History Project.

Permanent home

The quilts have a permanent home at First Presbyterian Church. History shows that Racine County was part of the Underground Railroad as fugitive slaves were sheltered seeking access to the ships of the harbor and freedom in Canada. Items found in the crawl space under the sanctuary, some dating from the Underground Railroad era, are on exhibit at the Racine Heritage Museum. Go to firstpresracine.org for more information.

History

The Racine Heritage Museum, custodian of the history of Racine County, earned designation by the National Parks Service as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom facility in 2001. The museum maintains core exhibits on Racine County’s participation in the Underground Railroad, the Civil War and the history of Black people in Racine County. Go to racineheritagemuseum.org.

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