From plantations and farms in Kentucky and Tennessee, Mollie Barnes had a story to tell and a message to convey.
Her story started in the late 1850s, when she was enslaved, and continued when she was a newly freed woman. Yet it wouldn’t be fully told until decades later, through her quilts and the African American tradition of oral history, spread through generations of her family. Her message was to enslaved people seeking freedom and those already free, and to her children, and their descendants; those who would be born free decades after she died. Those descendants would spread their wings across America, including to Seattle.
Now Jim Tharpe bears the story and messages left by his great-great grandmother in the form of 12 quilts she created. The Seattle man is on a mission to ensure the tale and legacy will educate and enrich thousands for decades to come.
More than 150 years have passed since Mollie made those colorful works of fabric art. At 76 and with no children, Tharpe is the last in the family to be trusted with the precious heirlooms. His dream is to create a traveling exhibit to share the quilts with the entire country. After he’s gone, he wants the collection to remain intact so people can learn the story of his family and what it says about America’s history.
Mollie’s story is one that’s all too familiar for Black families, like mine, who can trace their roots back to slavery. It’s a story of brutality, working without pay from sun up until sundown, all while praying for a better day for future generations. And as enslaved people who were once counted as property, it’s a story full of color and intrigue that’s pieced together over time — like a quilt.
Tharpe and I share similar backgrounds. Like his, my mother’s family is from Tennessee. My great-great-great grandmother, Mary Corder Williams, was born around 1826 and was enslaved by the Corder family in Wilson County in middle Tennessee, about 150 miles from Mollie’s home. And like Mollie, Mary had a child, Luvenia, by a white man believed to have been her owner.
Throughout the weeks I spent talking with Tharpe, it was as if Mollie and Mary were speaking to each other, and to us. How else can I explain a chance meeting with this stranger at BluWater Bistro in Leschi, sparked as we sat on the patio with our respective dinner parties, when I overheard him say “Tennessee”? I turned around and inserted myself into his conversation. “Did you say Tennessee?”
We talked for more than an hour that night, a conversation that continued over the next four weeks, and one that would lead to an invitation to see the quilts, a flight to Nashville, a two-hour road trip to Paris, Tenn., and a meeting with museum curators representing the state that enslaved both women.
Remarkably, Tharpe’s family has kept all 12 handsewn quilts together and in excellent condition. His family saw the value of their history — America’s history — as it centered on Black life, Black women and American culture.
‘She didn’t know she was free’
Born in the early 1840s, Mollie left the Barnes’ farm in Graves County, Ky., for Henry County, in western Tennessee, around 1854. There, as an enslaved girl, part of her duties included that of seamstress.
Tennessee State University history professor Learotha Williams Jr. said it was not unusual for an enslaved teen to be able to create such quilts back then. “You’re thinking of 13-year-olds today. Back then, that was her job,” said Williams, a scholar of African-American, Civil War and Reconstruction history.
The exact date each quilt was made is unknown, as are the names of the people who owned Mollie. Census records show she lived in both Paris, and later in Weakley County, Tenn., by 1880 with a man named Adam Banks.
One of her first quilts, an intricate pattern of pastel blues, grays and pinks, is believed to have been made around the time she arrived in Paris. Now faded and worn, this is the quilt on which she was raped by a white man, likely her owner, according to family lore. Hauntingly, it is still soiled with splotches of blood.
“Out of all the quilts she made, why would she save this one? We believe she saved it to let people know what happened to her,” said Tharpe, relaying the story he’s heard repeatedly in hushed tones his entire life.
Mollie made several other quilts in the early 1860s, and even after slavery ended. Ten of the quilts have been identified as Underground Railroad quilts, items that historians say included symbols and maps to help people escape slavery. The quilts would be hung out of windows or on fences or tree branches as if they were drying. Certain patterns would indicate a body of water is in your path, or that men should bring any tools they have or can acquire, or whether the path was safe for children to travel.
Some historians dispute the existence of Underground Railroad quilts because of the scarcity of any written documentation. But others say the pattern similarities among such quilts aren’t coincidental. Add the fact that it was unlawful for most enslaved people to read or write, hence any secret codes would not be documented, even by those who were literate.
“In my professional opinion, [Mollie’s collection of] the slave quilts were made from period fabrics in typical designs used on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War era,” said Lori Verderame, an appraiser who met Tharpe in 2017 at the Seattle Home & Garden Show, adding that the quilts are from the 1850s to 1870s. “Some have later repairs but there is no question they are authentic.”
In Tennessee, like elsewhere in the South after Emancipation, many Confederate soldiers returned home resentful and penniless. Tennessee is where the Ku Klux Klan was founded, and their violence was unleashed throughout the South. At least 236 Black people were lynched in the state between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Institute. At least two were lynched in Henry County where Mollie lived. Many of the enslaved people were forced economically to remain on plantations and farms after the war.
“With all that was going on, I believe that she made these quilts because she didn’t know she was free,” Tharpe said. “She didn’t feel free. And just in case she wasn’t, her children would have a map to freedom.”
At times Tharpe handles the quilts with such familiarity and comfort you’d think they were, well, quilts. At other times he treats them like your grandmother’s plastic-covered living room furniture, reserved for special company. Yet other times he treats them like the museum-quality artifacts they are.
“Usually, I open a bottle of champagne when I work with these,” he said as he brought the first quilt to his dining room table for me to see. A few seconds later, like magic, a bottle of bubbly appeared. Pop! He poured. We made a toast to Mollie and Mary. We sipped and our history lesson began.
The quilts don’t have individual names. There’s one other quilt Tharpe has in his collection that he calls the hope quilt or pineapple quilt because some of the images resemble pineapples, a symbol of good fortune. Over the years, the quilt was passed around the family upon the birth of a child, or someone moving to a new city or upon marriage. Mollie also made dozens of quilt blocks that her daughters and daughters-in-law would eventually assemble.
After showing a photo of the hope quilt to curators at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville in October, Tharpe learned the hope quilt had similarities to the Lincoln quilt, a pattern created in honor of the 16th president upon his death. Such revelations have been a part of Tharpe’s journey with the quilts.
“When I met him I said, do you know what you have? And he knew, but not to the extent of what they really meant,” said Verderame, who has a doctoral degree in art history. “I have seen similar pieces but not a collection of this stature, historically, culturally and aesthetically.”
From generation to generation
Before she died in 1901, Mollie had seven children, including Tharpe’s great-grandmother Eva, described in records as “a mulatto,” born in1864. Eva married Johnny Hartsfield and they had a son named Johnny, who married Lena Caldwell. Lena and Johnny Jr.’s daughter, Verna, married Raymond Tharpe. The Tharpes moved from Paris, Tenn., to Chicago’s West Side in 1942, where Verna worked as a seamstress and Raymond managed a clothing store. The coupled had Jimmie in 1947.
Through the years while Tharpe was in college and moving around the country for his career as a government and business consultant, the quilts mostly stayed together in Tennessee, except for a few years when Tharpe’s grandmother moved from Tennessee to Chicago to live with Verna and Raymond. She took the “hope” quilt with her for safety and good fortune, but left the others with her sister in Paris.
Tharpe’s mother eventually became the sole keeper of the quilts and moved to Florida, where she died in 2017. She also left Tharpe letters from herself detailing the history of the quilts and other family heirlooms.
That’s how they wound up in Seattle. Tharpe doesn’t keep them in the house where he lives, but has access to them whenever he needs to see them and feel them and connect with his ancestors.
Mollie comes home
It had been a decade since Tharpe visited his ancestral home of Paris and it was my first time in the town of 11,000 that has its own Eiffel Tower.
He’d packed one of the antique quilts in a carry-on suitcase for his flight to Nashville only to discover it was too big to carry on. His only option: check the empty suitcase and carry the quilt on board, resting in his lap for the five-hour flight.
With the quilt in the rental car’s back seat, we drove two hours to meet with his cousins, visit the Black cemeteries and find any records of Mollie and her children.
Along the winding roads through the countryside and over the Land Between The Lakes National Park and the Kentucky River, Tharpe reminisced about his summers in Paris as a boy, and the stories and the food and the freedom to run and play. His cousin Gail Tharpe took us on a tour of the city’s past and present, starting with a trip to the Tharpe family church cemetery in Cottage Grove. Dozens of Tharpe and Hartsfield headstones stood at attention on the small plot of land shaded from the sun with fall leaves. And nestled in a row were large stones indicating the burial of a formerly enslaved person or someone too poor to afford a headstone. There was no sign of Mollie or Eva’s graves nor his grandfather Johnny’s.
It was then on to Quinn Chapel AME, the oldest Black church in Paris, founded in 1867 and on the National Register of Historic Places. Tharpe thinks Mollie and daughter Eva may have attended Quinn Chapel before it relocated to its present site. Across the street is the historic Paris City Cemetery, where many white dignitaries are buried. A swath of land inside the wrought iron fence has been reserved as a memorial to the hundreds of enslaved people who died without a proper burial. Could Mollie and Eva be buried there?
Tharpe isn’t the greatest orator, especially in front of strangers, but he knows his family’s history. Back in Nashville, as we walked toward the Tennessee State Museum to meet with curators, the weight of the moment began to crush his nerves. “I’m really getting nervous, I’m really nervous” he said, with the sun helping create beads of sweat on his brow. I assured him all would be fine. I told him, just let Mollie speak through you.
After an exchange of Southern niceties that even a longtime Seattleite could remember from his childhood, and with great dignity and reverence Tharpe stood and opened the box. We heard from Mollie.
“Just bring this back to Tennessee. Emotionally, I have to deal with the fact that she’s coming home. We were fortunate to go by the church where she attended and now we are here. To think that she’s back in the state that enslaved her, talking to you all, who may actually honor her, it’s emotional, so forgive me.
“When I take this quilt out of this box I’m not just showing it to you. I’m actually speaking to my great-great-grandmother. So forgive me if I get a little emotional. When I touch these it’s like I’m talking to her.
“Here she is.”
Tharpe wants his family’s quilts to be shared across the country, and for schoolchildren to see them for free. Ashley Howell, executive director of the Tennessee State Museum, said she would love to have the collection either on loan or permanently. She said the museum has 144 quilts, about 10 made by African Americans of which about half of those were made by an enslaved person. But none were acquired from the enslaved person’s descendants. Instead, they were acquired from the family of the enslavers or someone outside of the family.
Before I left Nashville, I drove out to the Bellwood community in Wilson County where my ancestor Mary was enslaved. She died in 1926 at age 100. But viewing the countryside, I wondered on what farm did young Mary work, which creeks did she have to cross. What would she think about her great-great-great grandson? Though born into slavery, she lived to see her freedom and her children’s freedom. If she could write this column, what story would she tell?
Then I remembered when we were in Paris, and Tharpe had read aloud the monument at the city cemetery dedicated to the hundreds of enslaved people who died without a proper burial. It reads: “Nearby are the unmarked graves of an undetermined number of slaves and others of African descent who though lacking personal freedom or equality of standing as citizens, contributed to the building of our community through their physical toil, perseverance and unfettered spirituality. … We commemorate their lives and pledge to seek the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams in their descendants.”
I’d say Mollie and Mary are together, smiling.