by Suzanne Labry
Allyson Allen’s Teaching Quilt: Cathy Williams, Buffalo Girl
Textile artist, author, instructor, and curator Allyson Allen always makes what she calls information art. “I don’t make a lot of quilts with triangles, butterflies, and teacups,” she laughs. “I make teaching pieces—story quilts that I use in my lecture presentations and exhibitions to introduce people to African-American history. The contributions of African-Americans are so glossed over in traditional educational settings that most people don’t know anything about them. By using an art arena instead of a classroom, I’m trying to make a lasting impression on the viewer.”
Cathy Williams, Buffalo Girl, 50” x 50” cotton, satin velvet, and ethnic prints. Hand- and machine-appliqued on a machine-pieced background. Embellished with jewelry, leather, buttons, glass beads, yo yo’s, cording, and chain. By Allyson Allen. Photo courtesy of the artist. Additional information on this quilt can be found in Quilted Pages – Story Art Quilts, by Allyson Allen.
Her works definitely do make a lasting impression. The award-winning, internationally known Sun City, California-based quilter has been recognized by the state of California as a Master African-American Quilt Artist. For the past ten years, she has produced one-woman special exhibits with an African-American theme for Mancuso Quilt Shows, producing up to 15 quilts annually.
That she uses her art to instruct is a logical extension of her many years teaching high school English and Special Education and her background made her a natural fit for inclusion in the landmark exhibition documenting 400 years of African-American history, And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations, curated by Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi. That exhibit, which toured throughout the United States for several years ending in 2018, was organized along a timeline beginning in the 1600s with the arrival of the first slave ship in Jamestown, Virginia and continuing up through the presidency of Barack Obama.
“Dr. Mazloomi contacted me the second week of October in 2012,” Allyson recalls. “Although she had been working with most of the exhibition artists for a year, she had just been introduced to my work. She invited me to submit a quilt for the exhibit but said that I would have to be able to provide her an image of the quilt by Thanksgiving. She told me that she only had two time periods remaining to be depicted in the exhibit, one of which was the Civil War. Since my particular research interests were slavery, the Civil War, and the Antebellum era, that was an easy choice for me, and because I was used to working quickly due to my agreement with Mancuso, I was able to meet her deadline. I submitted the finished quilt to her before Christmas so that it could be photographed for the book that accompanied the exhibition.”
The subject that Allyson chose for her quilt was Cathy (alternate spelling Cathay) Williams (Image Right: The only known photograph of Cathy Williams), who, at 16 years of age, was liberated when the Union Army seized the Missouri farm where she worked as a slave. Throughout the remainder of the Civil War, she traveled with the Union forces led by General Sheridan, working as a cook and a laundress. After the war, Congress developed the first all Black military units and in 1866, faced with no good prospects for making a living, Cathy pretended to be a man (somehow passing the requisite health exam) in order to enlist and serve in the United States Army, the first African American female to do so. Using the name William Cathay, she served with the Buffalo Soldiers, the all African American 38th Infantry unit, on the American frontier in New Mexico. The soldiers were charged with protecting settlers from Indians and it was one of the harshest assignments the Army had at that time.
Cathy Williams served with her regiment for two years. To imagine how a woman could have kept her gender a secret while sharing barracks and grueling work duties with all men boggles the mind and speaks to her truly remarkable resourcefulness, cunning, and strength. Apparently, a cousin and a friend who were fellow soldiers helped conceal her identity, but that in no way lessens the fact that she did so.
It was not until she was hospitalized due to smallpox that the post surgeon discovered she was a woman and as a result, she was discharged from the military in 1868. Despite being discharged honorably, she was never approved to receive a pension or benefits, even though other women who had served under the guise of men did. After Cathy left the military, she resumed dressing as a female and again began working as a cook and laundress. She died sometime before 1900 in Trinidad, Colorado, where she may have run a boarding house.
Allyson Allen’s quilt introduced me (and I’m sure many others) to the extraordinary life story of Cathy Williams. After I saw Allyson’s piece, “Cathy Williams, Buffalo Girl,” in the And Still We Rise exhibit, I went straight home and did an Internet search about Cathy. I could not believe I had never heard of her before. Allyson’s teaching quilt certainly taught me and it speaks to another aspect inherent in some quilts: their powerful ability to communicate.
NOTE: St. Martin’s Press has just published Sarah Bird’s wonderful novel about Cathy Williams entitled Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen. Bird takes the spare facts known about Cathy and fleshes out her story by casting her as someone who has been taught from birth to view herself as a captive rather than a slave, thereby dramatizing the incredible inner strength that empowered Cathy to do what she did.