by Suzanne Labry
Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
June 19, 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, which occurred two-and-a-half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Known as “Juneteenth,” the date is now recognized as a special day of observance not only in Texas, but in many other states as well, and a movement has been started to have it declared a national holiday.
Juneteenth celebrations are common in Texas and throughout the South and they often include quilts, as befits the important role quilts have played in African-American life in the United States.
This year’s sesquicentennial significance encouraged even those communities that have not traditionally commemorated the event to do so. One such place was Wichita Falls, a city of about 100,000 in the northern part of Texas.
While most communities in the state have an African-American population with a rich history, Wichita Falls has something that other communities don’t: Arthur Bea Williams.
To say that 81-year-old Arthur Bea Williams (named for her uncle) is a dynamo is putting it mildly. A former domestic worker who became a legal secretary and eventually embarked on a long career in public service, she was the first African American woman ever elected to office in Wichita Falls, serving as Justice of the Peace, as a city council representative, and as mayor of the city before retiring in 2005.
She now refers to herself as a “professional do-gooder” and, along with Brenda Jarrett, the director of the local Youth Opportunity Center, Williams had the idea of asking people to submit a quilt square telling what the historically African-American area of Wichita Falls known as Eastside meant to them in order to commemorate Juneteenth’s 150th anniversary.
“I love history, I love quilting, I love Wichita Falls, I love Eastside and my middle name is ‘I will’,” Williams laughs. “I wanted to do the quilt so much that I bought the background fabric for all the squares!”
She did much more than that, shepherding the project from concept to fruition, and ending up with enough 12” x 12” blocks to make not one quilt, but four quilts.
Contributors, including individuals, businesses, church groups, schools, clubs, and civic organizations, had free rein over their block compositions—as long as the design and materials fit inside the square with a quarter-inch seam allowance and represented some aspect of Eastside community history.
The end result far exceeded Williams’ expectations. The Eastside Community Quilts were unveiled on the evening of Friday, June 19th, 2015 prior to a downtown parade and celebration.
The next day, they were moved to Washington/Jackson Elementary School for display in conjunction with musical performances and other activities. Attendees were amazed and delighted by the extent and variety of the history depicted on the quilts, and even lifelong residents learned things about the Eastside community and the achievements of people who grew up there.
For example, one block depicts the Holland Library, which was established in the community by an Eastside resident to honor his wife since African-Americans were not allowed to check out books from the public library. Williams was especially gratified by the fact that some of the quilt blocks came from historically white businesses. And that they represented an effort to address racial bias and injustices that had occurred prior to desegregation.
One of the first blocks submitted came from the hospital that had once refused to grant black doctors admitting privileges or employ black nurses.
“Whatever our history is, even if it is embarrassing, it is still our history and we need to acknowledge it,” Williams says.
Williams hopes that the Eastside Community Quilts will find a permanent home in some public building.
“We have significant history that we need to be proud of, but if we don’t share that history, then no one will know about it. These quilts are a way of documenting the important cultural contributions that the Eastside has made to Wichita Falls,” she says.
Wichita Falls celebrated Juneteenth in 2015 for the first time in many years. If Arthur Bea Williams has anything to do with it, however, it’s a sure bet that it won’t be the last time. And whatever form the celebration takes, the Eastside Community Quilts will doubtless be a part of it.