Ira Phillips Blount




Ira Phillips Blount




Ira Phillips Blount


Evelyn Salinger

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Dorry Emmer


Washington, D.C.


Evelyn Salinger


[background noises can be heard from meeting in room below.]

Evelyn Salinger (ES): Our interviewee today is Ira Phillips Blount, a member of Daughters of Dorcas and Sons. His number is 20002.013. The interviewer is Evelyn Salinger. It is March 29th, 2005. Hi, Ira.

Ira Blount (IB): Hi, Evelyn.

ES: Nice of you to be interviewed today.

IB: It's a pleasure.

ES: In front of us is the quilt you brought to show us today. And maybe you would describe it for us.

IB: Yes. A little background on the material. Some years ago, I saw an advertisement in a catalog about some three-inch blocks of calico of different colors and designs and so forth. And although I had never made a quilt before, I ordered them because I always wanted to make a quilt in memory of my mother who was a seamstress. We grew up during the depression and she made quilts for us. They weren't fancy quilts, but they were utilitarian. She made them out of whatever materials were available. In our house we only had a kitchen stove in the kitchen and a fireplace in my parents' room. We would always gather around the fireplace until bedtime in my parents' room. Then my two brothers and I would go to our room which was unheated. So that was a very good reason for us to have warm quilts. We never got cold because my mother always saw that we had quilts that she made.

ES: Just tell me here, what state was that?

IB: That was in Tennessee, in Memphis.

ES: Is that mountainous there?

IB: No. Tennessee is a rather long state. The eastern end is mountainous; the western end is flat land.

ES: But it still gets pretty cool at night.

IB: It still gets very cool at night. In fact, our weather at times is similar to the weather we have here with snow, ice and so forth.

ES: So, now you have ordered these three-inch blocks. They all came in a package?

IB: Yeah.

ES: And so what did you decide to do with them?

IB: Well, I laid them out in different ways and I couldn't come up with a design, so I decided that I would just start sewing them together and I sewed them until I got a rectangular piece finished. And I decided I'd make another rectangular piece and I ended up with four. And then I just got the idea of using them [background laughter from meeting downstairs.] with a burgundy and dark blue border, which I think set off the pieces very well. And the other thing was, at the time I made this quilt, I hadn't gotten any instruction but was always fascinated by the appearance of quilting. And I think maybe I really went too far with the quilting because about every square inch is quilted. [ES laughs.] But the effect, I think, turned out to be pretty nice.

ES: It is very nice. Did you do it all by hand?

IB: All by hand.

ES: So the piecing and the quilting were by hand?

IB: Oh, yes.

ES: Very nice. That's very colorful.

IB: Oh, one other thing. One of our members--I haven't seen her in awhile--if you notice there are some kente cloth blocks.

ES: Yes. I see them.

IB: She felt like that might detract from the historical nature of the quilt because she was thinking back to antebellum times, when there was strictly calico designs and she thought maybe the Kente cloth was a little out of place. But it was incorporated with it at that time, so it stayed. [laughs.]

ES: I noticed them. They are different from the rest, but that makes it interesting.

IB: Yeah.

ES: Very nice. And when did you finish this quilt?

IB: Ninety-six, I believe it was. I don't remember how long it took, but when I look at it and see all the quilting, I say to myself, 'It must have taken forever.'

ES: Yes.

IB: But one of the reasons I haven't tried to learn to quilt by machine, is the fact that quilting by hand is very relaxing to me. And I don't think about the time. Sometimes I might rush it a little bit because I want to see how something's going to look. But as I say, quilting by hand is very relaxing and therapeutic.

ES: Do you use a frame or a hoop or do you just do it free?

IB: No. I paid for that because I've had to rip out a lot of quilting because it bunches up and gathers and so forth. But I guess God wanted me to continue on this one because I didn't have that problem [laughs.] to begin with. I might have been dissuaded from making any others.

ES: Uh-huh.

IB: I didn't have any problems with--I did start in the middle--

ES: Aha. That's a good idea.

IB: And quilted out. And that might have helped. And I did baste it. But I've never used a frame.

ES: Were you a member of Daughters of Dorcas and Sons at the time that you made this?

IB: No. I joined after.

ES: So you did not have any body to advise you?

IB: No. That's one of the reasons for all of the quilting because I don't think the average person quilts that much.

ES: There are a few people who do. But it's nice to have the spaces I've decided.

IB: Uh-hum.

ES: Would you tell us what is your earliest contact with quilters? You said your mother, any other people?

IB: Yeah. I knew of no others. I, at some point, I guess in the late nineties, I met representatives of Daughters of Dorcas, and they were Daughters of Dorcas and not sons, at the Anacostia Museum. I think it was at the time they were celebrating Juneteenth. And they had a tent out on the grounds and I met Mrs. Canady and other members, then. I think Bessie Sharpe was there. I met her there and I was quite inspired and I joined then, in the late nineties.

ES: Well, you are one of the three male members of the Daughters of Dorcas that I have known since I've been here. And you are pretty regular, now. Do you find that you learn a lot at the meetings? Do you enjoy--

IB: Oh, yeah. And then I think that we have such a warm group. And I am more or less, not having an immediate family, I kinda consider the members as part of my family. 'Cause when I was working, I was not able to come regularly but now I am.

ES: Are you fully retired now?

IB: No, no. I haven't learned yet how. Once I get over my cold and so forth, I'm going to be out there looking for another job.

ES: Good for you. Did you have any sewing skills as you were growing up?

IB: No. We learned how--as teenagers we learned how to put cuffs in pants, that kind of thing, but that was the extent of our sewing, but we did learn how to make a seam, there.

ES: Where is 'there?' In school or at home?

IB: At home, yeah.

ES: I think in those days they did not teach sewing to boys in school.

IB: No.

ES: You went to school--your entire education was in Tennessee?

IB: Yeah. Graduated high school there and I had about one year of college there at LeMoyne Owens College, and then I went to Tuskegee Institute. It was Institute at that time, it is now a University. I went there as a work student for two years, before I was drafted in 1941.

ES: Explain what is a work student.

IB: A work student, you work during the day and you take classes at night.

ES: Uh-huh. And what did you major in?

IB: I was going to major in agriculture but I, not having put in too much time, I never got to the point where I focused in agriculture, but that would have been my major, had I not been drafted.

ES: And then when you were drafted, what happened there?

IB: When I was drafted--well, I might back up a little bit, at Tuskegee we had ROTC training. And when I was drafted, I was sent to Camp Lee, Virginia. It was Camp then, it is Fort now. And that was a training camp, and the skills that I learned in ROTC meant that they considered me as a valuable recruit. So they thought I had a potential to be a non-com and I went through the ranks and ended up as a First Sergeant in charge of the training company. So I stayed there for four years training recruits to go overseas.

ES: My. And you never went overseas yourself.

IB: No.

ES: You were very lucky. What years were you there?

IB: '41 to '45.

ES: Uh-hum. What did you do after that?

IB: I was a little bit like a lot of veterans. I really did not know what to do with my life. And it was rather disjointed and I went back to Memphis for a short period of time, and I got a letter from one of my army buddies who lived here in Washington. And he suggested that I come here. And when I came to Washington, I did get a job with the census bureau and hated it. [laughs.] Because being young and crazy, I did not realize that I should have stayed. Anyway, I finally ended up getting a job with a private company that handled drafting and surveying instruments. I had never had drafting in school, so I was very inquisitive and I took a correspondence course in drafting and I still have some of the plans that I drew by hand. They do them now by computer.

ES: Yes.

IB: But that really helped me in this company, because I knew the supplies, knew what they were used for. And I ended up as office manager and I stayed 32 years with them and retired from there.

ES: Oh, that's wonderful. Good for you. I suppose the drafting, in a way leads you toward quilting or toward crafts. I know you like to do crafts.

IB: Yeah.

ES: Were you able to start on some of your own hobbies after this?

IB: Well, I had always been interested in using my hands and in fact, when I was growing up, I never could stay in bed in the morning. And all the rest of the family would be in bed. I would get dressed and go out in the yard and start piddling around with this and that and there were a lot of leftover bricks from some kind of construction in a house. And I used to build houses out of those bricks, just to have something to do. At one time, I had a whole city built underneath our house [laughs.] out of bricks. And as a child, I was rather sickly growing up, so my parents were overprotective and I could not get out and roughhouse with the rest of the kids, so having to more or less stay in, I was still trying to find something to do. I didn't make too much stuff then, but I had access to a lot of magazines and I saw illustrations of things that you could make out of this and that and so forth, and that kind of planted a seed so that later on, I began to actually get in to things like wood carving, calligraphy, basketry, and as you know, quilting.

ES: Uh-hum.

IB: One thing led to another.

ES: Quilting still hasn't eclipsed the other, you still do other things besides quilting.

IB: Yes.

ES: What are some of your favorite things you do right now?

IB: Well, calligraphy is one of my favorites and I am interested in paper cutting and fashioning items out of cut paper. Aside from quilting and needlework, I love to do cross-stitch. In fact, I hoped that I can do a cross-stitch piece for our project this year. [for Sumner School show.]

ES: Oh, that would be nice.

IB: Yeah.

ES: And you would finally quilt it. After you do the cross-stitch you would finally make it into a quilt?

IB: Yeah. Some kind of design involving cross-stitch and make it into a wall hanging.

ES: Have you given any quilts away or pretty much what you have made you have kept yourself?

IB: No. I haven't actually given any quilts away. I have made wall hangings using pictures of my relatives like the one I had in a show a couple of years ago, with my grandmother and her children. I made one of those for my niece and then I also have a picture of my maternal grandfather and his children. So I made that into a wall hanging for a cousin. And then I have a cousin in Florida whose family is rather Afro-centric. So she sent me a beautiful picture of them all in African dress.

ES: Uh-hum.

IB: So I got that enlarged and made them a wall hanging, which was very colorful. Yeah. But I haven't given any quilts away.

ES: What would be your favorite aspect of the quilting process?

IB: The piecing. Anything that involves the hand sewing, because as I said earlier, that is so relaxing.

ES: Do you have any advice to new quilters?

IB: The only thing is, to just stick with it, because like many of the crafts that I have tried, it can be very disappointing starting off. But as you keep trying and trying, you begin to see an improvement. And my advice to any new quilters, or any new crafts person, is to stick with it.

ES: Very good.

IB: One other thing I think I had mentioned to you in passing, that after I came out of the service and so forth, my mother came down with Alzheimer's. And my father wouldn't put her in an institution. He kept her at home. And at that time, we really weren't aware just what it was, but we knew that her mind was affected. But I noticed that when she got very fidgety and nervous, all my father had to do, was just put some of her quilting pieces in front of her. Her mind wouldn't quite click as to what she was supposed to do with them, but she just moved the pieces around, moved them around, and she was very calm. So that will always stick in my mind, as to-- she knew it was something involving what she had been doing, but she didn't know quite what. But it did serve to calm her down.

ES: That's a good thing to remember.

IB: Uh-hum.

ES: I have been wondering to ask you one more set of things, and that has to do with your life, having grown up in the twentieth century when there have been a lot of changes. When you showed me a picture of your second grade class in Tennessee, all the little black children together, and I asked you whether you had ever had been with white students. You said--will you tell me what you told me at that time?

IB: Well, as I started to say, we considered ourselves very fortunate in that my parents worked for very well-to-do white people. And we never experienced any blatant racism because of that contact with these families, I think it really enriched our lives because my mother--well, I come from a family of readers on both sides. They all like to read. And cases where there were things that the servants could bring home from their jobs, possibly other people were bringing food or clothing and so forth, but my mother always brought magazines. So we were exposed to magazines from around the world. And I think that that was so very important to keep us interested in so many different things. As I say, we knew racism existed. During the time I was growing up, lynching was quite prevalent. I might be exaggerating, but there was so much lynching going on, I always say that they would publish it in the newspapers every day like the ball scores, as to how many people were lynched. I tend to exaggerate, but [laughs.] they did have a listing of the lynchings there. We had the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the paper, the leading paper that is there now, and it was liberal to a degree as they could be in the South.

ES: Yes.

IB: And they had the little picture cartoon of a black man, and they called it, 'Hambone.' And Hambone always had words of wisdom, every day. And my people were not offended by it. He always made his comments in dialect, but they were very wise. Every day. It was on the front page. And that was the first thing my father would read. And at mealtimes, and the family did eat together then, we had all kinds of discussions about current events and what was happening in the world and in our city and so forth. [ES hums agreement.] So, I say that the thing about racism and hatred was never instilled into us. And I thank God for that.

ES: It is very evident that you seem to be very open to everybody.

IB: Oh, yes.

ES: And then when you went into the army--well, first of all, the school was completely non-integrated. When you went to the army, what happened?

IB: Yeah. We were separate. There was one side of the camp for the white soldiers and then one side for the blacks. And, we would all go into town at times, but we never encountered. I don't know if it was arranged that way, but we never encountered white soldiers. I guess it was because they had black sections of the cities, and so we were more or less guided to the black sections.

ES: And in the camp, did you have superiors who were white?

IB: Yeah. We had, during the time I was there over a period of four years, we had only black officer, second lieutenant, but the rest of the officers were white. And as I said, all the non-coms were all black.

ES: And the commissioned officers were they fair, you felt they were fair toward you?

IB: Yes.

ES: And then in your life in Washington, did you feel the changes that were going through in the sixties?

IB: Yeah. I never will forget when the Civil Rights Law was passed, I guess at the time, it might have been the Washington Star, because the Washington Star was in existence then, but anyway, one of the papers had a big headline, 'Eat Anywhere.' [laughs.] Why I didn't save a copy of that, I don't know. But that is one of the things that I still remember. Of course they did have the custom in the stores where black people could not try on hats and things like that, and they did have, in some of the ten cent stores and maybe in some of the department stores, the counters that had a separate section for them. But I never really experienced too much of that, I think because of the way I had been brought up, it never really bothered me that much. [ES hums agreement.] I do remember one incident when I got ready to go away to school. My mother worked for a Mrs. Campbell who was the wife of a prominent orthopedic surgeon there. In fact, he owned a clinic. And when I got ready to go away, my mother told me, 'Mrs. Campbell wants to see you before you go.' So I went to the house, to the back door, of course, and I sat in the kitchen until Mrs. Campbell summoned me. I thought we were going to be in a sitting room, or something like that. But I understand Mrs. Campbell stayed in bed until the middle of the afternoon, so she [laughs.] had me come right into her bedroom, and sit there. And she said she just wanted to give me some advice about what wonderful parents I had and she didn't want me to disappoint them once I went away. And she didn't want anything to lead me astray. That's nice advice.

ES: Very nice.

IB: Yeah.

ES: Your parents, had they had any education?

IB: No. My parents were very intelligent from reading and so forth, but they did not have much formal education. But they were very intelligent people. In fact, my mother belonged to a poetry club in our neighborhood. And somewhere is a ragged book of poetry that she owned. Some of my family still has it, I hope. They would meet at different homes and read poetry. Yeah.

ES: It sounds like you had a very good family. You were very fortunate.

IB: Oh, yes.

ES: How are your brothers, now?

IB: Well, all of my family has passed away.

ES: I wondered.

IB: Unfortunately, they died at a rather young age--my parents, and my two brothers.

ES: If there is nothing else that we need to ask at this point--

IB: Yeah, I think we covered quite a bit. [laughs.]

ES: Yeah. We appreciate your coming today. Thank you very much.

IB: It's really been a pleasure.


“Ira Phillips Blount,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024,