by Suzanne Labry
Historic African-American Land Grant University Uses Story Quilt as a Teaching Tool
In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act, a piece of legislation that granted federal land to each state to create a “State University for the Industrial Classes.” The law was sponsored by Justin Smith Morrill, a representative and later a senator from Vermont,
in response to the Industrial Revolution and the rapid changing of social classes in the United States.
Prior to that time, higher education was out of reach of all but the wealthiest citizens. The Act’s purpose was to “teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education.” Given the time period, it goes without saying that people of color were excluded. It wasn’t until 1890 that the second Morrill Act was passed to create 18 land
grant institutions for African-Americans. One of those was North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) located in Greensboro, which was established in 1891.
A hundred years later, a group of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and Greensboro community members got together to commemorate the centennial of N.C. A&T by making a story quilt. (A story quilt, an honored tradition associated with African American culture, is a pictorial, narrative quilt that tells a story using quilted images.) More than 100 people worked for three years to create Common Roots: the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University Centennial Story Quilt, 1891-1991. Fifty-nine 9”-square blocks depict various phases of the university’s history, events, and prominent people.
It was Dr. Lillie King, who at the time was assistant vice chancellor for development at the University, who had the idea for the quilt. “Crafting the blocks of the quilt provided interesting and highly creative avenues of expression by the volunteers,” King said when the quilt was completed.
Mattye Reed, whose husband was a dean at A&T and who was the driving force and former director of the University’s African Heritage Center that now bears her name, coordinated the steering committee that oversaw the project. In addition to King and Reed, other members of the steering committee were Margaret Headen, Anita Rivers, Linnie Foster, Sabina Alexander, and Mary Robbins. Now, 27 years later, all of these women have passed away, but their work remains to mark their own legacy in addition to that of the University their story quilt honors.
Today the quilt is proudly displayed in the University’s Bluford Library Building. Doctor Conchita Ndege, who teaches in the History Department at N.C. A&T, uses the quilt to instruct her students in the traditions of the University.
She has each student focus on a block and use it as a springboard to research the item, event, or person depicted to write a report about it. In this way, the Common Roots: the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University Centennial Story Quilt, 1891-1991 accomplishes the goal of its creators: passing down history and heritage in an especially accessible way through the visual, tactile telling of a story.