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New Jersey textile artist, guild aim to keep quilting alive for future generations of Black Americans

New Jerseyans keep quilting alive for future generations of Black Americans
New Jerseyans keep quilting alive for future generations of Black Americans 02:36

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- The generations-old tradition of quilting in African American heritage is celebrated as a one-of-a-kind form of expression, which stemmed from necessity.

CBS New York's Kristie Keleshian spoke with textile artist Bisa Butler and a local quilting guild aimed at keeping the tradition of quilting alive for generations to come.

Within the walls of Butler's Jersey City art studio, there are huge historic portraits, their quilt equivalents and, of course, the echoes of her long-arm sewing machine.

"My message with my artwork is to give the true story of what it means to be a Black American," Butler said.

If you take a closer look at her work, you can see each and every detail tailored, literally, to fit several foot-long and wide quilts. Her vibrant portraits depicting African American life have been featured on magazine covers and in museums nationwide, including her 2021 piece "Don't Tread on Me, God Damn, Let's Go!" at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. depicting the Harlem Hellfighters.

"They have been, in essence, forgotten. They're from the area that I've lived in my whole life," Butler said.

Born in Orange, New Jersey, she grew up in South Orange, where she lives now. In school, she was never taught about the all-Black infantry regiment in World War I -- the Harlem Hellfighters. She's using her art to make up for lost, less-talked-about parts of Black history. Each piece of fabric she uses is a symbol.

"That swirl fabric is a Nigerian tie-dye. If you drop a bead of water and it makes those rings, it's talking about how one person could make a big difference," Butler said.

Also in her native Essex County, quilts are displayed at the West Orange Public Library, made by the Newark-based Nubian Heritage Quilters Guild.

"African Americans have always quilted in this country. They had textile skills before they even came here or were brought to this country," guild co-founder Glendora Simonson said.

"It's part of a legacy, you know?" guild co-founder and president Carolyn Davis said.

The almost 30-year-old guild was founded by Davis and Simonson. Both have generations of quilters in their families.

"It's a frugality out of necessity. It celebrates what a lot of women have done throughout their life," Simonson said.

The guild is always welcoming newcomers. It uses the Sankofa symbol originating in Ghana meaning to go back and get, represented by a bird looking back to pass a seed, or tradition, onto the next generation.

"That's our mission statement, is to learn from the past to teach the future," Davis said.

A vital patch forever woven into the fabric of Black history.

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