Women’s History Month – Quilts Connect From Pre Civil War to the 21st Century

“When you can effectively deny a man of his history, you can effectively deny him of his very humanity.” The statement from A Handbook for Teachers of African American Children by Baruti K. Kafele, an award-winning educator, whose first name means teacher, is so true.

What about women’s history? It astounds me that with all the great leaders in the world, when I ask my freshmen English class to write about heroes, most fourteen-year-old girls, choose celebrities like Lady Gaga to idolize.

“When I was your age,” I explained to my class, “women were second-class citizens. Female athletes and books about them were non-existent; very few female biographies were published.  My hero was Harriet Tubman a brave, athletic slave who escaped to freedom and then led others on Underground Railroad.”

“How did a white girl end up with a black slave for hero?”

Women were obliterated from literature, except in the role as damsel in distress. Like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, rebelling against the role of Southern white belle, I fought the confines of traditional womanhood in the 70s.

Lenore' s quilt for granddaughter

Yet individual acts of courage can make an extraordinary difference. Rosa Parks sat down so the nation would stand up for Civil Rights. Jane Addams, the first female Nobel Peace Prize recipient, helped poor Chicagoans survive the Great Depression. Harriet Tubman risked her freedom and her life helping 300 other slaves escape north.

Other heroes followed a more traditional path like my mom, Lenore McKinzie, who combined family and career. She instructed and nurtured, inspired and sewed. My mom’s passion led her to attend Dr. Clarice Boswell’s lecture on Pre-Civil War Quilts. Dr. Boswell explained how the codes stitched in quilt patterns signaled safe routes on the Underground Railroad and recounted her family ancestry in her book, Lizzie’s Story – A Slave Family’s Journey to Freedom.

So where is this going? Dr. Boswell’s daughter, Cathy Boswell, a 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist, entered Illinois State University the year after I graduated. In my first coaching gig, Cathy starred on the team I coached at summer camp.

Now my class was hooked; the lesson tied in with basketball and the Olympics.

My international students thought the Underground Railroad was a real train tunnel. They had never heard of Harriet Tubman. Most had no clue what a quilt was either. I handed out photocopies of the Pre Civil War quilt patterns and then passed around an example of the mini quilt cover my mom made me.  She sewed a red cardinal, Illinois’ state bird, also my Norwegian grandmother’s favorite, into the green and gold cloth as an everlasting a symbol of my own ancestry.

Dr Clarice Boswell

From Harriet Tubman to Jane Addams to Rosa Parks, “little” women made a big impact on history. From Betsy Ross to Clarice Boswell to Lenore McKinzie, American women connected generations in the great tapestry of humanity, one stitch at time.


Information on quilting events: http://www.northernillinoisquiltfest.com/events.html

October 20, 2011, 1:30 p.m. McHenry County Historical Society Museum: Dr. Clarice Boswell Presents – Pre-Civil War Quilts: Their Hidden Codes to the Freedom of Slaves through the Underground Railroad at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum. (Union, Illinois)

Posted in education, inspiration.


  1. Pat, thank you for this Women’s History Month column. Women’s history month is one of my favorite annual events, and your students’ level of awareness really shows why it’s needed! If you are on Facebook, you could “Like” the YWCA of the Sauk Valley, and you would get a Women’s History Month post every weekday this month! Thanks again!

  2. Sista,

    once again you have hit some heart strings in this article.
    Having Mom Lenore listed in the same article of some of those more recognized women in history brought tears to my eyes. We sure were/are blessed with strong, inspirational women in our lives! So, which one of us daughters will carry on Mom’s quilt skills???

  3. Hi Pat,
    What a nice tribute to your mom.
    There was a farm near Sterling that the Underground Railroad used.
    I look forward to each new article.
    Shirley DJ

  4. Very cool, Pat. Thanks for reminding us of the ability women have had to make a difference in this world for the better. I loved that you put your mom right up there with the other heroines. I’ve always thought she was pretty special.

  5. Pat,
    I really enjoy your messages. Last week I had the chance to share K.D. Switzer’s story with a group of senior and junior students. She is a true hero of mine. She was the first women to run the Boston Marathon with an official entry, she used her initials and they assumed she was a man since no woman could possibly run 26.2 miles. Keep up the good work. There is a great podcast about the race on Phidipidations.

    • What a fascinating story about K.D. Switzer! Thanks for sharing and thanks for your encouragement. Means so much to me especially from a “fellow” teacher!

  6. “When you can effectively deny a man of his history, you can effectively deny him of his very humanity”

    It certainly has a devastating effect, when indeed you look at what happened with the Afro-Americans, the native Americans and the Aboriginals in Australia.

    But exactly why it has this effect I don’t quite understand yet.

  7. Hi Pat,

    I grew up watching my mom & her friends laying out bits of cloths for quilting! It’s an amazing sight to behold:) All of us siblings were gifted at some point with quilts made by our mama’s hands…

    Thanks for this inspiring story.

    • Do you do quilting? I have saved all the t-shirts from my basketball teams, which my baby sister has promised to make into a quilt for me one day. Fat chance, like me, she has never sewn a stitch in her life. ha ha

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