Marjorie Diggs Freeman


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Marjorie Diggs Freeman


In this interview, Marjorie Freeman shares her quilt "Yes We Can and In My Lifetime"




Marjorie Diggs Freeman


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Del Thomas


Durham, NC

Interview indexer

Emma Parker


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Marjorie Diggs Freeman. Marjorie is in Durham, North Carolina and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the phone. Today's date is March 4, 2009. It is now 10:15 in the morning. Marjorie, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Yes We Can and In My Lifetime."

Marjorie Diggs Freeman (MF): I actually have two quilts by that name. The second one is the one that is on exhibit in Washington, D.C. at the Historical Society. ["Quilts for Obama: An Exhibit Celebration of our 44th President" at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. from January 11 to July 26, 2009.] For me to tell you about that quilt, I guess I need to tell you about the first one that I made because the second one is based upon the first one. I was so excited when the possibility of Barack Obama running for president occurred that I knew that I was going to make a quilt about him. Period. There was no doubt about it. I was excited back in 2004 when he did his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. I think the keynote address was "The Audacity of Hope" [Vintage, 2008.] and he later did a book called "The Audacity of Hope." When he made that address I said to myself, 'This man is somebody really, really special,' and so my book club and I read the book "The Audacity of Hope." It talked about compromise and cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, but at any rate I knew after reading that book, and how he talked about hope, that America really had the potential to offer hope to everybody. If you look at my quilt, the first thing you see when you look at it is the word "HOPE" emblazoned across the middle of it. I knew if I ever did a quilt it had to have "hope" written in huge letters across it. When I decided to do this quilt I knew I had to use that and for me it had to be in red, white, and blue. I purchased the background fabric for the quilt long before this, well 2008, before that Democratic Convention was even held. As I said before, I was going to make this quilt regardless of the outcome because I believe Barack Obama has all the skills, the ability, the charisma, all the leadership, the knowledge and everything to make a great leader for our country. I had in the back of my mind what I thought I wanted to do but I really wasn't sure so during last year's convention when he was actually nominated, just before he was nominated. I started designing the quilt and I said to myself, 'How am I going to go about this?' Being a relatively traditional quilter, I decided that he is such a star I'm going to use stars and that's basically what I did. It has stars all over it and I didn't just want plain stars with his picture in it, but I wanted words that sort of described him as a person or words that stood for what he symbolized or said. I took words from what I felt he represented. I felt he had appeal to everybody in the United States. He cut across all segments of the population so I thought he was a generational reconciler. That was one of the phrases I put in one of the stars. In his book and in the speeches that he made while he was campaigning, while he was going through the primaries, he felt that people were really hungry for unity and so I had "A Unified America" in yet another star. In the speech that he gave on race in Philadelphia, I think that was in March of last year, he said that we were looking for, we needed a more perfect union and that all of the people were, all Americans were, looking for a change and that it was possible for everybody in America to have social justice and economic justice, it didn't matter. I thought I wanted to include all of those elements in the quilt. As I sat there designing, I actually drafted the stars myself, those things I included on my quilt. Well, once I looked at my background fabric and I thought about how to do this, you know you have one idea in mind and then you start to get it together and it really doesn't work out. I found that I had to put all of my stars on pentagons because the background fabric was so busy my stars didn't show up so I had to kind of alter my plan a little bit, which I did, but that didn't matter. In order to go along with my theme of hope, I chose a quote that he had given when he gave an acceptance speech in Iowa, when he won that primary and the quote was about hope not being just about blind optimism but it was something we really had to work for and reach for, I put that in a rectangle in my quilt. Now you may say, 'Well this is about the first quilt, how does that impact on the quilt that is hanging in Washington [D.C.]?' Well I say the two quilts are really interrelated and I had to use them on the second quilt as well and let me tell you why. I got really excited when Dr. Mazloomi, Carolyn Mazloomi, called me and said that she was inviting black master quilters from across the United States to participate in an exhibit in Washington, D.C. for quilts honoring Obama. Well, first of all, I could barely speak because I was a "master quilter," that in itself shook me to the very soles of my feet. Aside from that I thought, wow that was an honor and then I thought this will be a piece of cake, I have a quilt already made, but then I said to Carolyn, "You know I really can't put in this quilt that I have because it's not as good as it should be because there is some imperfections in it and if I'm going to have something hanging in an exhibit it has to be "just so." Much to my surprise, a couple of days later I get another call that says, 'The quilt can not be larger than 36 inches by 36 inches.' Well needless to say the first quilt was much larger than that, so therefore I had to redo it anyway. [laughs.]

KM: What size was the first quilt?

MF: The first quilt was 38 [inches.] by 45 [inches.] and it had a lot of images of Barack Obama on it and one of the things she said was that Roland Freeman does not want to have a lot of photo images of Barack Obama on the quilt. I thought oh well so I would have to redo it anyway. That eliminated the first quilt automatically. When I redid the quilt, the second quilt I only used one image of Barack Obama and I used the stars but I had to rearrange it and it worked out okay. The second quilt is completely, the one that is in Washington, is completely hand done. There are no machine stitches in that quilt at all except the ones that hold the navy blue binding on. Other than that, it is all done by hand.

KM: Why did you choice to do it all by hand?

MF: Because I enjoyed it. [laughs.] Some people may think I'm a mad person but it was such a special honor for me I wanted to make it special and I enjoy hand work tremendously so therefore I opted to do the entire thing by hand. That is why I elected to do it that way. As I made the first quilt I prayed that he would be elected to the presidency. I didn't have to pray as much for the second quilt. I had to pray that I finished it in time because I was doing it all by hand so my prayer was a little bit different [laughs.] than it was when I was doing the first one. The first one was backed with fabric from Africa but the second was not, it was just backed with plain white fabric with little stars on it. That was what happened with my first and second quilts because I had to complete that, the second quilt, the one that is the smaller one in thirty days and I managed to do it in time believe it or not.

KM: What are your plans for the quilt?

MF: In as much as I have two and I have two sons one will get one quilt and one will get the other quilt. My initial plan for the first one was to actually give it to President Obama when he became president and if that happens he will get the quilt. Nothing would delight me more. My eldest son already has a quilt that I made for him. My second son does not, so my younger son will get the quilt that is hanging at the Historical Society, so that will be what happens with the two quilts. I feel that they should stay in the family, but if Barack wants one, he can have which ever one he chooses actually. [laughs.]

KM: Tell me about the words that appear in the centers of the stars.

MF: Okay with pleasure. In the upper left hand corner there are the words "Social and Economic Justice for All." I feel that is one of the campaign issues that President Obama was putting forth and that is one of the things that he is really working for now. He is facing some terrible problems right now in our country with the economy being what it is, but he realizes that it is going to take a lot of time. I felt that is one of the problems in America right now and that there is no equality across the board for everybody. I think that was one of the appeals to the general population and that was one of his platforms and I think he is working toward that. That was in one star, and then on the right there is one that says, "A More Perfect Union." His speech in Philadelphia, I think I mentioned that earlier, addresses racism and that speech I think they entitled: "We the people in order to form a more perfect union," which is actually a quote. It is not an original at all but it's a quote from the Constitution. This is what he wants for our country, it is nothing new. We can always do better. America can always improve itself. We have gotten better as the years have gone on. That Constitution was written when slavery was very much in vogue, it was alive, it was well and there are issues now that still we have to embrace. There are problems of racism that still exist. We still have issues of immigration to address and there are other problems in our country, so we are still working toward a more perfect union. It's not a perfect country, we still have flaws and so therefore I felt that the fact that he realizes this and he is interested in doing things a little differently, he wants a different approach, I felt that this is something that I had to include in one of the stars. Another star, the one in the middle, says "A Unified America." I feel that people really want to be unified. I grew up during the time of World War II and there was such unification around America in spite of all the segregation that existed and things during that time, people were still, we were true Americans, we had a common cause, we were fighting for the same thing. I don't know if it was because we were at war as a country but I remember saving stamps in a stamp book. Every Tuesday at school they sold stamps that you saved and after you filled up the book you got a war bond. You saved aluminum foil, you saved tin cans and lids and things like that. Everybody was doing something for the benefit of the country and it seems as though we've gotten away from that. We came together after 9-11, but that kind of dissipated. We come together when there are problems in the country, but then it just fades away. We come together in the time of crisis, but I think we all really need to work together all of the time toward common goals and that is why that was there "A Unified America." The star on the left "Generational Reconciliation" I spoke about earlier. Barack Obama appeals to all segments of the population. He definitely appeals to the young, and he appeals to many older people because they see that he brings something new to the table, a new idea. We find out that the old ways of doing things aren't working so well so we have to look at a new way of doing our business. I worked with the campaign here for Barack Obama, registering people, I worked the polls, I stood out in the rain on election day soaking wet but it didn't matter because I felt if he doesn't get elected at least I can say I did what I could do for him to get elected. He does appeal to everybody. In the middle there is a huge star and that star says, 'The time is now to bring real CHANGE to the country we love.' That encapsulates everything that I think he stands for, because we've got to change the way business is being done in Washington because the old way just was not working. I think that explains what all those stars mean to me, that is how I interpreted it and of course I have the one image of Barack Obama at the top center that has his picture.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

MF: I haven't always had an interest in quilting, but I've always had quilts around me, always. I guess it started early on when I wasn't really cognizant of quilts. I have the baby quilt that my mother and grandmother made for me; still have it. As a child, we did not have purchased blankets. I had heavy quilts on me at night that my mother made. All I'd known for covers when I lived at home were quilts. During my married life I purchased blankets and things like that of course. I watched my mother make quilts, no special pattern at all, just made quilts. I developed serious, not a serious interest, I will just say an interest in quilts in the eighties when I was a principal of an elementary school and I needed a new activity to kind of relax myself. I had gotten a book on a sampler quilt and I was determined to try all these different blocks and to make a quilt and again I did it all by hand. I was going to do these blocks all by hand. Not that I didn't have a sewing machine because I've always had a sewing machine. I used to make everything I wore including coats, believe it or not. With the coming of children you don't have time for that. At any rate, I picked up this book and I started making these blocks off and on to just relax myself after a stressful day. Over the years, I finally got these blocks finished and put together in a queen size quilt. I won't tell you how many years it took but when it was time to put all of these blocks together for this queen size quilt I knew that I had to use the sewing machine to put the sashing on or I would lose my mind, which is what I did. I used the sewing machine for the drop around the edge of the bed and I also used the sewing machine to help make the shams for the pillows. That was in '88 I guess, when I took an early retirement. After that I did quilted Christmas stockings and small wall hangings and things of that nature and I was into other kinds of crafts. I was in upstate New York on the Vermont border where it was cold so I was doing more knitting, but then I moved to North Carolina and I left my other needlecraft and really started quilting. When I arrived here I rejoined a group called The Links and they were building a Habitat house. The Links decided it would be nice to give the people in this Habitat house a quilt. Well they looked at me and I said, 'Oh, of course I can do that!' So I helped certain ladies in The Links and another group we were working with in putting together, making blocks and putting together a quilt for the people who were going to be the owners of the house. That was the beginning of my quilting. That would have been 1992. I did quilting on my own off and on until I joined a group called the African American Quilt Circle and boy oh boy those ladies were so inspiring and it was so exciting that I haven't stopped. That was where I guess my interest in quilting really and truly began. It was like being ignited, a firecracker being lit! I guess I've been quilting for, really seriously quilting for about ten years. As I think of that, you made me really think about it, how long I really have been serious about quilting. As I said before, quilting has always been a part of my life. My mother was making a quilt I guess a year before she died but I've always had them around me, they've always been a part of my life.

KM: You mentioned belonging to the African American Quilt Circle, do you belong to any other art or quilt groups?

MF: In deed I do. I belong to the Durham Orange Quilters which is a group of ladies that live in Orange and Durham Counties here in North Carolina. Last year and this year I've been elected to be their workshop chairperson and that's a very interesting group in that we have speakers every month or an activity going on every month and I have the exciting job of having teachers come in to do workshops for us. That's been very exciting and eye opening because I get a chance to research and look and see what's new, what's out there, and it's been very mind expanding for me. That group has two hundred members at least. The African American Quilt Circle has sixty plus I would say. That group is based in Durham, North Carolina. I'm the program chairperson for that group so it keeps me busy. [laughs.]

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

MF: I look to people who are really interested in quilting. What I have done with people who really show an interest, I give them some basic instruction on how to put things together. I have actually taught people who don't have a sewing machine how to quilt. Once they have the basic instruction I let them go on their own and I answer their questions and I will tell you why I do it that way. I was self-taught through books and I learned the traditional way of quilting and I was very busy matching those corners and all of that. What it did to me, Karen, was it stifled me later on. I learned all the skills of the quarter inch and the matching and all of that, which was good background, don't get me wrong, but what happened when I wanted to break away from that and do art quilts and do things on my own, where as part of that was beneficial it also kind of held me back because I didn't feel as free and I couldn't let go of the traditional ideas as much. I have found that if I just give the basic information, the learner is much freer and is able to do things on their own much more quickly than if I instruct them on all the little ins and outs of traditional quilting. I don't know if you can understand that or not.

KM: I can, definitely.

MF: That is what I've found. I've sought out, not sought out but when I talk to people and I find they have a truly sincere interest in quilting that is what I do. I work with a lot of people one on one. I even taught a ten year old girl how to quilt. She made a pillow for her grandfather who has since died, and the joy that gave her and gave him was remarkable. Another fifteen year old girl made a wall hanging for a high school project that was descriptive of her life and that was very rewarding for me as well as for her. She is a student. She is actually a senior at Spellman now. All of those things are rewarding for me and I did not have to give a whole lot of instruction [phone disconnection.]

KM: You were talking about the fifteen year old girl.

MF: She finished the quilt and she is now a senior at Spellman College and so you never know the impact that your individual teaching will have on a person later on.

KM: Is "Yes We Can and In My Lifetime" typical of your style?

MF: Yes, you see I'm still bound up in this traditional thing. However, I have spread my wings and I have done some very non-traditional things. I do a lot of scrap quilting. I have lots of fabric from Africa and I have some silks and I do a lot of appliqué. I love to do appliqué and things with my hands of course. I have taken some classes with Lyric Kinard and Hollis Chatelain so I can do some painting. I'm interested in that now and other forms of embellishment on my quilts. I'm kind of spreading my wings and trying some new things.

KM: Describe your studio.

MF: It never was a bedroom. I live in a three-bedroom townhouse. One of the bedrooms is like a TV room, the second one is my studio. Its full! where should I start? I could almost go in there and walk around it, but my studio has two walls of bookcases, one filled with fabrics. On another wall there are books and more fabric, threads, buttons. On the wall with books there is a table in front of the window which I look out of and get inspirations. I also have a computer in there and a TV and a tape player or I should say a CD player, I listen to music. I have a closet that is full of fabric, on the shelves and on the floor, a chest-a-drawers which I have had all of my life. I say all of my life because it was with me as a child and I still have it. I have a table that has collapsible leaves which I use for cutting. The table with my sewing machine on it. [phone disconnection.] On top of my bookcases I have baskets and boxes in those baskets are all sorts of things. I actually have adinkra stampers that I picked up in Ntonso, Ghana when I was there. They use them to stamp adinkra symbols on fabric. I have scraps. I have glue. You know you have to have ways of storing all these kinds of stuff: lace and ribbons and embroidery thread. I even have baskets that have needlepoint work in them. Another one has stuff you are going to do someday, embellishments, beads from Africa, notecard supplies, brushes, all sorts of stuff like that. On the walls I have art work that my brother did. He was a professional artist for Associated Press. I have some of my work of course and it's a crowded spot but there is plenty of room for me to get around in and do what I have to do. Also on these bookcases I have a box of paints, boxes for beading and that sort of thing. I have baskets of scraps. [phone disconnection.]

KM: Are you the type of person that works on one project at a time or multiple projects at a time?

MF: Multiple. [laughs.] I can't just concentrate on just one thing because I get too many inspirations at different times so I'm all over the place. I have multiple UFOs [unfinished objects.] under my bed and I vowed that in 2009 I was going to finish them, but I don't think I'm going to be very successful. So I have a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Then I have to work on projects that people want me to do for them, so I'm all over the place. I can't just concentrate on any one thing. If I waited to finish one thing before I went to the next I wouldn't get very much done.

KM: How would you like to be remembered?

MF: Wow that's a tough question. I guess I want to be remembered as somebody who really cared about the art of quilting. I want to be remembered as somebody who shared what she knew. As somebody who always encouraged people, who kept an open mind, who was creative and kind and gave of her time and her talent. To me when you do what you really enjoy it's obvious in the end product. I want my quilts to tell a story. I want my quilts to tell about my life, my experiences, and my family, and I hope that they reflect what I enjoy, what I believe in, and my favorite things. I hope that looking even deeper that they describe me as a person who always did her best.

KM: Is there anything that you would like to share before we conclude?

MF: The past couple of years I've entered a new stage of my life where I have been able to concentrate more on quilting and wanting to learn new things and really concentrating on expanding my skill and my knowledge about the new things and being able to express myself in new ways through quilting. It has been very exciting for me to begin to do that. You know sometimes you can look at a person's work and you can say, 'Oh I know who did that,' or 'Oh, so and so did that.' I don't know that I want to be remembered that way. I just want to continue to thoroughly enjoy what I'm doing and continue to share it with other people; to see and help others see it as the true art that it is.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and sharing with me. You were wonderful.

MF: I thank you and thank you for your patience during all the interruptions on the telephone line. [laughs.]

KM: That is quite alright. We are going to conclude our interview at 11:03.

Note: Technical difficulties occurred during the interview, which caused the call to be disconnected three separate times after about 40 minutes.


“Marjorie Diggs Freeman,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,