Larry LaRue

Tacoma native records history of African-American quilts and quilters

Miss Idonia Holmes lived in Hope, Arkansas, and when her husband left her with five children to raise, she raised them.

As a black woman in the South in the Depression era, that meant gardening and canning food, operating a downtown elevator for cash and taking in laundry to make extra money.

“Miss Idonia made quilts out of necessity,” granddaughter Beverly Miller said. “She had a little house, and the children needed quilts to stay warm.

“She hand-stitched every quilt — never owned a sewing machine — and that makes them such treasures. The people Miss Idonia worked for would give her scraps of old clothes, and she made quilts for everyone in the family.”

That included Miller, who lives in Tacoma and in the ’70s talked her grandmother into moving to the Northwest. Here, Holmes made quilts for her great grandchildren.

“We all have them, and she named each one. I have ‘Snapping Turtles,’ ” Miller said. “It has little turtle faces puffed up with cotton, and each turtle has eyes and a tail. She was a character.”

How so? Miller laughed.

“Nearly every day of her life, she ate a raw onion — and she was never sick. She would wash it down with a beer. When she lived here, she kept a case of beer under her bed.

“Those old quilts, people’s lives are in them, people’s stories.”

Which is where A’donna Richardson comes in.

A Tacoma native who served more than two decades in the Air Force, Richardson became interested in quilting in her 50s.

And when Richardson is interested, the term is powerful. She not only began quilting — teaching herself from a book and a newly bought sewing machine — she also was fascinated by the history of quilting. Especially African-American quilting.

“Other states in the U.S. that have done documentations always included African-American quilts and their stories,” said Richardson, who has read many of those books. “There were two documentations done in Washington in the ’80s — and neither included African-Americans.

“We are here in Washington. Our quilts and quilt history is here. My grandmother’s quilt was made in Mississippi, but I have it here.”

Richardson’s interest spurred her to online courses at the University of Nebraska. The 56-year-old is close to getting her graduate certificate in quilt studies.

Next week, the University Place resident embarks on an ambitious journey.

“Over the next three months, I’m going to have 18 quilt registration days in Tacoma and Pierce County,” Richardson said. “Beginning next week at the University Place Library, when you bring your quilt in we’ll measure it, photograph it and record your stories.”

The documentation will be archived with the Washington State Historical Society,

“The first 18 documentations will be in Pierce County, and then I want to go throughout the state,” Richardson said. “The results will be an exhibit and, I hope, a book.

“I’m applying for a grant from the American Quilt Study Group and the National Quilting Association for research and documentation. Right now, in Pierce County, the only expenses are paper, ink, mailings and transportation, and I can handle that.

“I wouldn’t be able to do the whole state without grant money.”

In the balance, Richardson said, are the histories of African-American quilts and quilters — histories that can be lost if not recorded.

“The example I use is a quilt I bought that was an 1880 quilt, but the history had been lost. I’ll never know who made it or the story behind it,” Richardson said.

She not only wants to record the stories, she wants to create a few of her own.

“I told my husband, ‘We don’t have anything like this to give our children or grandchildren,’ ” Richardson said. “Two years ago, I didn’t know how to turn that sewing machine on. I’ve made 15-16 quilts since, created patterns.

“My first quilt came out pretty darn well, although I know where all the mistakes are. I’ve now made them for our children, nephew, nieces …”

Miss Idonia Holmes died in 1979 at age 79, leaving behind family and the quilts she’d made for them over more than half a century.

“She told us quilting became a networking thing for black women, it’s how they got together on a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon to work and talk,” Miller said. “I got my first quilt from her when I was about 18, and she made one for each of my two children when they were born.

“I want her story remembered.”