Renee Jackson




Renee Jackson




Renee Jackson


Marcie Ferris

Interview Date


Interview sponsor



Houston, Texas


Lori Miller


Marcie Ferris (MF): Today is November 4, 2000, and I'm here at the Quilters' S.O.S. [- Save Our Stories.] project, at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. My name is Marcie Ferris, and I'm interviewing Renee Jackson. And welcome Renee.

Renee Jackson (RJ): I'm glad to be here.

MF: Glad to have you here. So, I'm going to start off talking just about your own interests in quilts, and your family's attachment to quilts. I thought maybe if you'd start telling me about that.

RJ: I have a great interest in quilts, and also in sewing. In terms of quilts, I have a small sized quilt made by my great grandmother, Willie Anna Brooks Newman. She's my paternal great grandmother. We refer to her as Granny. The small quilt that I have has no batting in it. The quilting procedure involved tying with red cord, and it is a scrap quilt. The other pieces that I have, that came to my attention, are small pieces which were identified as the 1920's adaptation of a pea hen pattern. I also have squares that were assembled by ladies from an African American community in Loudoun County, Virginia. On the squares that were assembled, I received those from my grandmother, Mollie Elizabeth Baylor Newman, born October 28, 1916.

MF: Do you want to spell those names for us? They're important to you.

RJ: Sure. Mollie, m-o-l-l-i-e. Elizabeth, e-l-i-z-a-b-e-t-h. Baylor, b-a-y-l-o-r. Newman, n-e-w-m-a-n.

MF: And who was she again?

RJ: She was my maternal grandmother.

MF: Born where?

RJ: Born in Sterling, which is located in Loudoun County, Virginia. Sterling is spelled, s-t-e-r-l-i-n-g.

MF: Do you know her approximate birth date, or age?

RJ: Her birth date was October 28, 1916.

MF: You're good.

RJ: The spelling for my paternal great grandmother, Willie, w-i-l-l-i-e, Anna, a-n-n-a, Brooks, b-r-o-o-k-s, Newman, n-e-w-m-a-n, referred to as Granny. I do not remember, from memory, her birth date but I do have it. I do know that in 1900 she was approximately 20 years old. The assembled squares that I have from the community was somewhat of a forced gift from my grandmother, Mollie, who I refer to as Mom. She had a collection of pieces, and they were made from yellows and browns. I don't remember the particular pattern, but she had provided or put together on a card a list of names. And when I saw the index card, I recognized the names as older ladies from my church and from other churches in the community. I began to ask her questions about the names on the card. She indicated that these ladies all assembled so that they could learn how to sew, and she spoke of a lady who would come around in a horse drawn cart, not a carriage, a cart, and she would teach the women in the community to sew so that they could provide clothing for their family members. She also indicated that this woman would travel to all of the different African American communities and teach the women in these communities how to sew. That included towns such as Leesburg, Audrey's Corner, Herndon, Sterling. Also, I believe women came from the Centerville and the Chantilly area. Because on the card my paternal great grandmother's name was listed and I know that she lived in Chantilly, she did not live in Sterling, which is approximately 8 miles away. The beauty of this card is that the names are accurate and correctly spelled, because on the back of the blocks they are all signed by the women who completed them. Also, I have an approximate age of the blocks. They are at least 64 years old, because my grandmother signed with her maiden name. When she died in 1999, she had been married for 63 years. On the small pea hen piece that I have, I have approximately 25 pieces. They are partially in a circle format with a flat end. There are small circles in the center, of navy-blue thread, with two narrow pieces of navy fabric that protrude from the center, and they go through white fabric at the bottom. Then there is a small fan formation of different colors of flowered fabrics, which form the fan behind the navy circle and there's small narrow, navy piece of fabric with a point on the top. We could not identify the fabric, or what the final pieces were. A person with graphic arts training informed me that it looked like a peacock, and to treat the white fabric as negative space and to look at the flowered pieces as the fans for the tail from a peacock. I participated in the program sponsored by the Smithsonian for African American identification of quilts. They looked it up in an encyclopedia for me and told me that it was an adaptation of the 1920's pea hen pattern, which was very, very popular. We believe that the pieces were assembled some time after the 1920's pattern showed up. The pieces are hand assembled and also some of them are machine stitched. I'm not sure if they were machine stitched because at a later date Granny obtained a sewing machine, or if it was just more convenient at some point in time to assemble some of the pieces by hand. I will say that her hand stitching is so fine, it is relatively hard to determine if it's actually hand stitching or machine stitching. The goal, for myself, is that I will assemble the pea hen by appliquéing them on a Wedgwood blue floral fabric and then determining some type of a pattern to quilt the fabric. My goal is to actually quilt it using hand stitches. I do not have an estimated completion date for this project. On the order of the lady who came through each of the communities to help them learn how to sew, so that they could provide clothing for their family members, it has been suggested that she had been an extension agent or a home demonstration agent. I do know that she was an African American woman. I have plans to identify if this was a professional job that she was performing, or if it was just a community service.

MF: Tell me a little bit about what you know about the history of women in your family and sewing.

RJ: I know that my great grandmother quilted quite a bit. I have early memories of going to her house and seeing all types of quilts. Not fancy quilts, but all types of everyday, usable quilts draped over the metal glider on the front porch, the rocking chair, also the different chairs and the couches inside of her house. I know that she sewed rather extensively because she made aprons for everyday use and also for fancy use. When she died, in approximately 1971, I do know that large boxes of her quilting materials and her sewing machine were given away to others that sewed or that quilted. Unfortunately, my family didn't believe that an 11-year-old would be interested in quilting material. I, myself, learned how to sew from my grandmother, pretty much by sitting at her feet and playing under the sewing machine table as she sewed. I am particularly grateful to the lady who came through and taught the communities how to sew because she is actually responsible, or had a direct impact, on my education and what I am doing. I have three separate degrees and all of them have to do with clothing. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. I graduated in 1983 and studied Fashion Design. I have a Master's of Science in Textile Science from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, obtained in 1997. I have a PhD in Clothing and Textiles, business and economics emphasis, obtained in 2000 from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. All three degrees are based on my ability and love of sewing and stitching. I have a great love of history. I have worked for two summers at the Smithsonian as an intern in their conservation department. For the master's degree, I completed historical research on sewing threads used in women's garments assembled in the late 19th century. So this lady in the cart had a major impact on my life. She was also responsible for the Dotted Swiss dresses that my grandmother made for me for many Easters. And the pink velvet dresses with the scalloped neckline and hem that my sister and I wore for Christmas. Unfortunately, most of these special garments we do not have because we would always pass on clothing items to other members of the family and other church members or members of the community that could use them. Some of these outfits, we were photographed wearing. My grandmother stated that she was never a great quilter. She had tried it, but it wasn't her forte. She was not big on wasting time on things she did not feel she did well. She did go back and try her hand at quilting later in life, and she produced a wonderful appliqué quilt for her great-granddaughter, Bonita Lynette Spriggs. She produced a Log Cabin baby quilt for a cousin's child, and that was a special request based on a baby quilt that had been made for this person's brother 45 years before. In terms of sewing, I do remember my grandmother participating in a sewing bee that was assembled at church. It was a very structured sewing bee, the group met once a month. There were, at one time, as many as 35 members in the sewing group. I also remember my grandmother speaking of quilting bees held in the community, prior to 1960. Because that's when I was born, and it was before they left the Sterling area and moved to Prince William County, Virginia. She stated that the quilting frame hung in the ceiling of the kitchen, and they used the ladderback chairs that were around the kitchen table, to hold the quilt frame. Ladies would come by when you had completed a top and they would have a quilting bee and try to get as much of the quilt completed in a weekend as possible. They would arrive, their husbands would bring them, on horses and carts. They would sit around and have a wonderful weekend eating fried chicken and other homemade foods, and they would quilt in the kitchen, and everyone would bring a little dish with them. That's how they got most of their quilts completed. They were all utility quilts though. A large number of them did not survive. There are three quilts that I know of, not so much in working order or in use today, but that are in the family. My mother has one, I have one, and my sister has one.

MF: Are there any factors that really distinguish those quilts from any others you've seen?

RJ: One is a nine patch quilt. The other two are scrap quilts, with many odd shapes assembled. All of them are tied, with either red cord or white cord. I have not seen any examples of detailed hand quilting completed by my great grandmother.

MF: What about the next generation of women?

RJ: The next generation of women. My grandmother said that it was her goal to teach all of her girls to sew. She taught my mother, Edith May Newman Jackson Friday, to sew. She taught my aunt, or she says she attempted to teach my aunt, Julia Lorraine Paige, to sew but it never quite took. My mother does sew. She makes apparel garments for herself and occasionally for other friends and family members. My sister, Nadine Kim Jackson Spriggs, has the ability to sew but generally does not. Myself, I will sew. She did not teach any of the great-granddaughters to sew. She would basically just sew for them. In terms of other family members sewing, pretty much it's my mother and myself right now. I have hopes that my nieces will develop a desire to sew now that grandma is no longer with us to sew for them, because they were very used to determining a style and colors and just giving her, the directions and she would make whatever it was that they wanted.

MF: Were there any, in your grandmother or great grandmother's generation, professional seamstresses, that you knew of?

RJ: Not that I know of. There were no professional seamstresses in the family.

MF: So, the sewing they were doing was primarily for-

RJ: Was primarily for family. I will say that for my grandmother, and actually my maternal great grandmother also, they would take in other children and so it was a very helpful skill to have, to be able to make garments.

MF: Can you give a quick background on your family's history, how they came to Virginia? Just to give us a little context for their connection to Virginia.

RJ: As far as we know, great grandfather Robert Baylor, was from Orange County, Virginia. But there was no contact-continued contact, with his family members in Orange County, and he never returned to Orange County once he settled in Loudoun County, Virginia. Particularly in the area of Oak Grove. On my grandfather's side, his father and his mother were from Chantilly, Virginia, but there has been mention of them traveling to do farm work and spending some time in New Jersey. But for the most part, they were born and raised and lived their lives in northern Virginia. Sometime in the 50's and 60's, they relocated to Manassas, Virginia, which is in Prince William County. But for the most part, they lived in either Chantilly, Virginia or Oak Grove. Most of the family has grown up and stayed in that area or settled around that area, generally within a 25-mile radius of those locations. They did things like farm work or worked with horses. On my grandmother's side of the family, at one point, they (great grandparents) had a laundry business, and their main business was from a butcher shop. They would clean the aprons that that butchers would use in the slaughterhouses, and from the different farms. Also, in terms of travel, most of the children settled in Prince William County or Loudoun County, which are counties that are next to each other.

MF: So really the women relatives in your family, that you're most familiar with, had fairly traditional domestic roles?

RJ: Fairly traditional domestic roles. Either stay at home moms part-time, and if they worked outside of the house, it would be something like domestic duties, house cleaning for others.

MF: A lot of what you've told us today really answers the question that I want to ask you next, but I want to go ahead and ask you anyway. And that's just to get you to reflect a little bit more on what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history in America? Because it certainly seems to have a big impact on your family's history.

RJ: What I think, from my own observations and also from the work I've been fortunate to do at the Smithsonian and some work with other historic homes, is that quilting served as an outlet for women. It gave them an opportunity to meet with other women, and they could talk about their problems, have companionship, get some feedback and some information and suggestions on any problems they may have. It would give them the opportunity to learn from others, and that there was definitely a large amount of sharing that occurred through this type of work. Since it would be women's work, it would seem to be much more freer with their desires, their disappointments, any of their problems, and their joys. The impact in terms of America's history, quite often you can find references or guidance pieces in terms of what's placed in quilts, since they are women's items and involved women's activity. Quite often I feel a lot of information could be shared, could be transported, through quilts and without drawing a lot of attention from others that might disapprove. For instance, I have a great interest in the Log Cabin quilts because they were used to identify safe houses on the Underground Railroad. Why was the Log Cabin quilt specifically selected, and why did they determine, and why were they even able to change the center block in the Log Cabin quilt and have it not be picked up by those that would have the most interest in finding slaves that had left their masters? Something generated by women, why pay any attention to it? It couldn't possibly be of any importance. It's just a quilt.

MF: That's really poignant. I wanted to ask you again, because we missed this part of the story and you talked about it a little bit the other day, how did you come upon what I call this kit of objects in your family? Because you talked about there were some other things too that are really related to the quilt pieces you found. I'd like you to talk about that.

RJ: I have found, with particular generations, basically my grandparents and older generation, if you don't ask the correct questions in just the right way, you don't get the information. My grandmother raised me. I grew up in this particular house. One day I came to visit and there was this index card on the dining room table, with the names of the ladies that had participated and made quilt blocks. I recognized the names and I thought, 'Well this is interesting.' So, I wanted to explore it. 'Well Mom, why do you have a list of these ladies?' Particularly when I saw my great grandmother's name on there. Then I noticed that my grandmother's name was on there, but it was her maiden name. I thought, 'This is an old piece of paper. Why is this here? Where did this come from?' Then she informed me, 'Oh, that has to do with when we were learning how to sew.' Then I had to probe some more about learning how to sew. I thought her mother taught her how to sew. Her mother did not know how to sew. 'No, my mother did not know how to sew. A lady came by in a cart with a horse and she would teach us all how to sew and all the ladies from the community got together.' First time I had ever heard the story. There are a number of stories like that within my family. I also have photographs of my paternal great grandmother, which I knew had existed, and a photograph of my maternal great great grandfather and my maternal great grandmother. Those two photographs, I never knew they existed, and they had resided for at least 25 years in a closet on the floor. And while looking for Granny's photo, the paternal great grandmother, I happened to hear mention of the other photos. When I asked to see them, I was amazed that these photographs were around and they were given estimated dates by a gentleman at the Smithsonian, and he told me they were generated pretty much some time slightly before 1900. So, they were pretty old and had been around for quite a while. Those are the only photographs of those maternal ancestors that we have. Actually, I believe that they youngest photograph of my paternal great grandmother, because there was a major fire and everything in the house was lost, except for this photograph, which she had given to my grandfather because he had admired it so much. That was given after he had married and moved out of her house. When her house burnt, we lost the family Bible and so much information.

MF: Were there any other objects connected to quilting?

RJ: There is thimble, a silver thimble that my grandmother gave me. She said that her father gave it to her because she loved to sew so much. So for me, that thimble is a representation for me of my education and so much that we have had and that we have done in our family. Those appliqué quilts that she made, which were very complex, but made by someone who doesn't quilt and doesn't think that she can quilt, for the great granddaughter just because the baby wanted something special like that. Actually, I believe that she began a quilt for the second great granddaughter. I don't believe it was ever completed, and I suppose that job will fall to me, to complete as the sewer or the quilter, and also as the historian in the family. I've also been blessed with all of the family photographs that currently reside in a closet in three Tupperware containers. Excuse me, Rubbermaid containers, the 18-gallon containers. To be sorted, while I'm also reassembling those quilt blocks and finishing the pea hen quilt.

MF: Are there any writing or journals or diaries from the women?

RJ: There were no writings or journals from the women. But we did find a cedar box, which when I opened it and looked inside, contained some letters and tax receipts for taxes paid on property that we owned. And unfortunately, we didn't look in the box sooner, because we had just gone through a long, arduous suit, basically, over the ownership of a piece of property, to prove that we owned the property and taxes had been paid on the property. There were tax notes in this small, cedar box that would have helped. But the lawsuit came out in our favor. The claim was denied so we did keep the property.

MF: Tell me what you would like to see happen with the materials that you have found? I also think you mentioned a hoop.

RJ: I also acquired my great grandmother's, Granny's quilting hoop. A large size hoop, it used to hang in our house, in the basement, over the sump pump. For those of you that aren't familiar with a basement with a sump pump, if the electricity goes out it means the basement floods. It was hung, at least, in a high position. But it had never been used. I had not seen it in use, but I have that also in my possession. For the future what I would like to see happen, I would like to see the photographs sorted and labeled. On the three older photographs that I acquired from my grandmother, I have had negatives made of them, and prints made of them. The negatives are in a safe deposit box. The prints and the originals are stored in acid-free boxes, in the dark. If I can find a location that doesn't admit too much light, I will hang the copies that were made. But the originals, as far as I'm concerned, should never see the light of day again. In terms of sorting them, I also made collages, last Christmas, for the great grandchildren. They had never seen the photographs, and I had some snapshots of them and put them together for the collages of different family members. In terms of the quilts, I would like to see the quilts assembled. I have reserved two of the pea hen pieces to appliqué on fabric and to create a pillow out of them so I can give one to my grandfather and one to his sister. They are the only living children of my great grandmother. I have plans to complete the rest of the pea hen pieces with a nice, large quilt that will hang on the wall.

MF: And have you quilted before?

RJ: I have taken workshops through the Smithsonian institution, to learn how to quilt. My grandmother never taught me specifically how to quilt, because she didn't feel that she was an expert. She had no qualms about teaching me how to sew, to knit, or to crochet. But I had taken these workshops. I'm actually a little intimidated about it. Even though I've done research in terms of color and color use for designers, it seems to be a totally different process for determining and identifying colors to assemble colors in a quilt and how you would assemble that. My great grandmother has already assembled those pieces for me. It's just a matter of me picking a background and appliquéing them. That's the easy part.

MF: So, you haven't actually started this yet?

RJ: I have appliquéd half of the pea hens on the fabric but working on the PhD I had to put those things on the back burner.

MF: So, tell me how it makes you feel while you're working on the quilt?

RJ: It makes me really happy, and I have warm fuzzy feelings because I remember Granny. She was a wonderful woman. She had a really soft voice. She had long hair you could sit on. She had blue eyes. And if you could actually see me, you would know why I found that interesting. When I took her photograph in to be reviewed at the Smithsonian workshop, they had mentioned to me that the eyelashes had been drawn in. They would go back with charcoal and highlight different photographs from that period, then cure them with egg white, they're called albumin prints. I noticed that her eyes were actually blue, a blue gray. Until that time, I was approximately 28 when I went to the Smithsonian with the photograph, I just remembered Granny having cataracts. But they were special cataracts because she could see out of hers, because she had light eyes. In terms of what's going on and what my memories are, I need to, and I also want to review with my brothers and sisters, to see what their memories are and how they mesh with mine. Because I don't know if anyone else remembers that Granny had light colored eyes. I've heard my mother make a reference, 'Oh yes, Granny had those funny colored eyes.' Because we had a cousin born with funny colored eyes, we weren't quite sure why she had funny colored eyes.

MF: How does the rest of your family feel about what you're doing with the quilt, family research?

RJ: My family's ecstatic. They don't have to do it. They're happy to send me pieces or to hold aside other things that they think, 'Oh, we should hold that aside for Renee. She really needs to get that.'

MF: Are there any other quilters in your family, or friends?

RJ: None currently. But I'm working on assembling more friends through working on this project. My goal is to go back to north Texas and spread the word.

MF: So which aspects, even though you've just begun, do you think you most enjoy about quilting, and aspects you don't particularly enjoy?

RJ: Well, I have kind of enjoyed the appliqué process, but it's a little intimidating. My grandmother was the type of person that, no matter whatever you made, regardless of whether it was sewn, knitted, tatted, crochet, needlework, whatever, she always looked on the back of it to see how it was assembled, and if it was up to her level of standards. Then she would turn it over on the front and say, 'Yes, that's nice.' It's been slow going while I've been doing the appliquéing because my great grandmother's stitches were so fine. I don't want to degrade or lower the quality of those pieces. It's not something that I can just whip together. Someone has mentioned that I should just machine appliqué them on. But my hand stitching is a lot stronger.

MF: Do you hear voices when you're quilting?

RJ: I hear voices all the time. They talk to me all the time. I can hear my great grandmother laughing, she had a wonderful laugh. She always called me the baby. I was the baby for a long time. It was generally things like, 'Give the baby another piece of cake. Yes, the baby may have a sugar cookie.' So, it always makes me smile when I think about Granny and when I work with her things.

MF: Did you say there was a photograph, or just an index card, of the women that were the quilters that had signed the blocks?

RJ: There was an index card. I also mentioned to my sister, in the large containers of photographs that I have, I have extended family members and also family friends. I think those photographs could be better appreciated by their immediate family members. I've suggested that we get together and have a photo party where we exchange those photographs. Hopefully I could get photographs of those other women. There was a very strong community connection between the African American churches in that area. The reason that some of those women's names were familiar, I remember those ladies from the Baptist Church in Chantilly, Virginia. Or the Baptist Church in Aldey, Virginia. So, there's a possibility that I could find photographs of those ladies.

MF: We're almost finished with our time. Is there anything that I haven't asked that you'd like to discuss, or that you'd like to add? Or Ellen or Kay, anything you want to ask?

Unidentified Person (UP): What are your plans for these quilts?

RJ: I would like to get very good photographs made of them, so we can have the photographs to save for display. If I can find a location for the pea hen quilt, so that I can have it hung in a way that can reduce the amount of wear and tear on it, that will be my goal. If not, it will probably end up in Mom's cedar chest, wrapped in acid-free paper. I'm a strong believer in preservation and conservation of our artifacts, and a strong believer of collecting as much history as we can, because we're losing those people that know those things. When my grandparents moved from their last house, there was a pair of metal sheers in the garage and turns out that I had a great uncle who sheered sheep for ten cents a sheep. And that was not general knowledge that we knew about. And we sit around, every time the family gets together, we sit around and talk about family members and what they did. But we hadn't heard about Uncle Billy sheering sheep for ten cents. So those were packed away to make sure that they weren't put out on a table for the yard sale, because we were trying to reduce all the things that we moved when they moved. A strong believer in preservation and conservation because once it's gone, it's gone.

MF: Could you see any of these materials being part of a museum collection at any point?

RJ: I could speak to that, but I would feel strongly about getting the permission of the other family members before that happened. Depending on where the collection is, most of my family's located in Virginia. I think they wouldn't have a problem with it.

MF: One last question I would like to ask you is how do you think, or do you think these objects or these quilts, reflect specifically about your region, where you're from, or Virginia? Do they speak specifically--have something to say about your region? Tell a specific story?

RJ: I feel that they speak towards the resourcefulness of the region that my family came from. The fabrics, I've been told, that some of the fabrics in the pea hens, or the peacocks, are actually make from sugar sacks, or flour sacks, or feed sacks. So, they were very, very resourceful. I do have a memory, I believe my mother has that quilt; the nine patch was a very heavy quilt, make for warmth. It's made with wools and some denims. The backing on it is a black and white double stripe fabric that reminds me of ticking that you would find on mattresses or on pillowcases. I do remember sleeping under that and it being very heavy, so it was made for warmth. I don't remember, ever remember, any fancy quilts or crazy quilts in my great grandmother's house. She was a very practical person.

MF: Was there any fancy needlework?

RJ: Not that I can remember.

MF: I'd like to thank Renee Jackson for participating in this interview today, at the International Quilt Festival, with the Quilters' S.O.S [- Save Our Stories.] project, on November 4, 2000. We're finishing at 4:40. Thank you very much.


“Renee Jackson,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,