by Suzanne Labry
Oakland Quilters Celebrate Their History
In the decades between 1910 and 1970, an extraordinary movement of people occurred in the United States. In what has become known as the Great Migration, more than six million African-Americans left the rural South and relocated to other parts of the country, attempting to escape oppressive segregation laws and racial discrimination and to find better economic opportunities.
Trail Blazers, by Marion Coleman. This quilt inspired by the annual parade held by the Oakland Black Cowboy Association. Photo by Eric Murphy.
In his book, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, Nicholas Lemann wrote that “The Great Migration was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history—perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation. In sheer numbers it outranks the migration of any other ethnic group.”
Some historians divide this migration into two time periods, with the first wave taking place between 1910 and 1930 to Northern and Midwestern cities, and the second wave occurring between 1940 and 1970 to cities in the west as well.
Oakland, California, is one of the Western cities that attracted a large number of African-Americans during and after World War II. The impact of this influx in the area known as the East Bay has been profound.
Spotlighting and celebrating that influence is an exhibit of 100 quilts known as Neighborhoods Coming Together: Quilts Around Oakland, a citywide quilt exhibition and quiltmaking project developed by the African American Quilt Guild of Oakland (AAQGO).
Funded in part by Alliance for California Traditional Arts, The Clorox Company Foundation, Alameda County Arts Commission, Hoffman Fabrics and members of the AAQGO itself, the exhibit is the result of a project that began in 2014 with the goal of creating quilts that depict life in Oakland—its people, its environment, its history, its social structure, and its culture.
During the project period, guild members conducted quilt workshops in schools, community centers, and non-profit organizations in order to engage as many people as possible. In February 2016 in the Rotunda Gallery of Oakland City Hall, the quilts began to be exhibited.
From there, the exhibit went citywide, with different quilts continuing to be displayed at different public spaces throughout Oakland. With a motto of “Think Oakland—Think Quilts,” the quilts are being featured at libraries, schools, and senior citizens centers as well as galleries and city administration buildings. For a complete exhibition schedule, click here.
The quilts show the pride of place that their makers feel about their hometown. The works cover the gamut—from beauty, to everyday life, to violence, to the complexities of race relations and more—and reflect the diverse perspectives of Oakland, a city that has been called “the epicenter of the African-American diaspora.”