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After a city’s tragedy, its artists set to work
I measure my legacy in cloth, in sewing machines and stitches. These are my inheritance, the inheritance of a family and of a people. My great-grandmother, Delia Deas Smalls, was a traditional quilter. My mother, Winifred Smalls Sanders, is an art quilter. My mother, who taught me how to thread a needle, says, “We all start out as traditional quilters”—we conform to the rules of a nine-patch block. Then we “kick traditional quilting to the curb” and tell life’s stories.
When my father, Luther Sanders Sr., passed away two days before my parents’ 51st wedding anniversary in 2003, my mother, in her grief, turned to the healing properties of quilting stitch by stitch. At first, sewing was almost impossible, but in time something shifted inside her. I believe my father, a robust man with a hearty laugh, was whispering, “Sew, Winnie. Sew to your heart’s desire.”
I live in Charleston, South Carolina, which some people call the Holy City, because of its many churches. On the evening of June 17, 2015, there was a massacre at one of these churches, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, also known as Mother Emanuel. A lost and angry young man shot and killed seven parishioners and two pastors who had welcomed him into their prayer meeting.
It was devastating to watch the early news reports, to not know yet who the victims were. My daughter called from New York in the morning. Her New York friends were asking if her family back home in Charleston was “OK.” The families of two of her closest childhood friends were Mother Emanuel parishioners. She asked me to call as soon as I learned anything. Before I could, however, she phoned me again, and through tears said, “Mommy, they killed Najee’s grandmother and Gracyn’s mother.” I collapsed into tears myself. When the victims were all identified, I found out that Cynthia Graham Hurd, a librarian at my neighborhood branch, was also among the dead. Sorrow and anger engulfed my family and my community.
Soon afterward, I received a call from a dear and true friend, Torreah Washington, a sister art quilter. She had been a friend of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the congregation’s slain pastor—she’d made a quilt that hung in his Mother Emanuel office. Like me, she fell to her knees at the news. Then, as she recounts, “I did what artists do in times of great emotions: I started creating art. I sang, prayed, and tried to understand this new reality.”
A year after the shootings, a pop-up art gallery was created downtown on King Street in what had once been a furniture store, several blocks from Mother Emanuel. Torreah Washington had issued a public call for art, for an exhibition that would be “a sanctuary and a center for healing.” The show was called The Holy City: Art of Love, Unity, and Resurrection. The works included pottery, painting, quilting, papercutting, and sweetgrass basketry (a skill preserved by descendants of West African slaves) created by the city’s artists. I titled the quilt that would be my contribution Sweet Hour of Prayer: Praying for Peace. The hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer” is often sung at prayer meetings, or Bible study.
When tragedy strikes, the feel of cloth and the hum of the sewing machine calm the sorrow in my heart. First, I prepare my workspace. I light incense and choose music I will listen to while creating. For Sweet Hour, I chose “Ella’s Song,” recorded by the all-female group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Syncopated, solid, and beautiful, it begins with these words: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest / We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes / Until the killings of black men, black mothers’ sons / Is as important as the killings of white men, white mothers’ sons.”
I thought about the typical Bible study in the AME Church. What verse was the group at Mother Emanuel reading when the shooting started? It was the Gospel of Mark, chapter 4, the parable of the seed sower. I read it over and over: “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. . . . They hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.'”
I watched the memorial service held at the church for the victims—it was televised—and determined that the quilt would be purple and gold, the colors assigned by the African Methodist Episcopal Church to Mother Emanuel. I wanted to include a peace symbol, but not the typical 1960s version, and chose the Reiki symbol for peace. In Reiki, the therapist channels energy into the patient by means of touch.
While sketching out my quilt I listened to music from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral; and to gospel great Mahalia Jackson’s “In the Upper Room” (“In the upper room with Jesus / Singing in tears blessed fears”). And I stitched through tears.
In my fabric stash I found purple cloth sent to me from South Africa by my friend Natalia Kanem, MD, when she worked for the ELMA Foundation, which promotes health and education for African youth (she is now assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director of the UN Population Fund). I chose the fabric because Mother Emanuel is an African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded—in 1816—as a place of worship for the freed and the enslaved.
Often art quilters wait for the cloth to “talk to them,” telling them what to create, how to “use” the “spirit of the cloth.” I wanted Sweet Hour of Prayer to speak to the viewer, to bind the lingering effects of South African Apartheid with South Carolina’s Jim Crow.
Almost all of my quilts have been created in answer to calls for entry in shows, which have specific guidelines and often are based on a particular theme. I finish a piece and I send it off; sometimes I deliver it in person to the gallery or museum. The Holy City exhibition was different. It was to take place in a building that had been vacant for years. Charleston’s artists, alongside Mayor John Tecklenburg and his wife, Sandy, donned work clothes, picked up scrub brushes and paint rollers, and we set to work sprucing.
In all, 63 pieces were exhibited, the responses of 43 artists. At the ribbon cutting, Mayor Tecklenburg, an accomplished jazz musician, played the piano—George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” from the folk opera Porgy and Bess, about the mythical “Catfish Row” of Charleston—sharing the stage with jazz vocalist Ann Caldwell and, on the harmonica, Damon Ford. College of Charleston anthropologist Ade Ofunniyin, grandson of the late renowned blacksmith Phillip Simmons, whose elegant wrought-iron gates decorate the city, poured a libation to honor the elders. Marjory Wentworth, the poet laureate of South Carolina, read her poem “Holy City,” and poet Kurtis Lamkin recited as he played the kora, a 21-string African lute harp.
Just off the foyer was a meditation room, with large comfortable chairs and a couch. Tissues were available throughout the gallery for those who needed them.
The gallery did not have a staff. Local artists, their family members, and an intern from the College of Charleston served as docents. When it was my turn, I stood outside in the heat and bustle of King Street distributing announcements of the exhibition and directing foot traffic to the gallery. There were many passersby on the way to elsewhere who promised to return, and some did. And there were some who came in and left in tears. Visitors from 15 countries viewed the exhibition.
As varied pieces of cloth stitched together form a beautiful whole, so the events that took place at Mother Emanuel and afterward have revealed the beauty of the human soul. Days following the massacre, at a bond hearing in a Charleston courtroom, relatives of the victims looked the killer in the face, and they forgave him. With measured anguish they told him what he had taken from them. With sorrow and without a hint of anger they put his case before the Lord. “I forgive you,” said the daughter of Ethel Lance. “I forgive you and my family forgives you,” said the husband of Myra Thompson. “May God have mercy on you,” said the mother of Tywanza Sanders. Each and every day Charleston moves closer toward healing.
These were the Emanuel Nine: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, age 45; Cynthia Graham Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr., 74; Myra Thompson, 59.
Catherine Lamkin graduated from the Lynch School of Education in 1977 and earned an MA in public health from City University of New York—Hunter College. She retired as a regional director of health education with the South Carolina State Department of Health and Environmental Control in 2012. Her art quilts have been exhibited by the African-American Civil War Museum and the Historical Society in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora, and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.