“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)