Wednesday, August 24, 2011

African American Heritage Quilting Project Keeps North Lawndale in Stitches

A group of North Lawndale organizations and community residents are combining time honored traditions of storytelling and quilting to strengthen the community’s social fabric. The North Lawndale African American Heritage Quilting Project is inviting North Lawndale residents to share their stories and participate in the research of the history and culture of African American residents and express their findings in a community quilt. Depending on what community participants decide, the quilts could celebrate family traditions, famous people from North Lawndale, the relationships between African American and Jewish experiences in North Lawndale; the Civil Rights Movement; the  African influence in Mexico; the Migration of African Americans from the South, etc.  The partners include Art Forward, the Better Boys Foundation (BBF), Historic K-Town, the Lawndale Historic and Cultural Society, Sankofa Safe Child Initiative and the Urban Art Retreat. Valerie F. Leonard, a local resident and community development consultant, is the project manager.  The project planning committee includes Billy Brooks, Jacquelyn Gipson, Dianna Long, Blanche Suggs, Lisa Wilcoxen, Ife Williams Martel Williams and Annetta Wilson.

“We don’t care whether or not participants have experience with quilting, or how long they have lived or worked in North Lawndale. All are welcome to participate”, Ms. Leonard said. “We are very fortunate to have local artists and quilters serve as lead facilitators to guide us through the process.” The project includes a series of resident led workshops covering the history of the African American experience in North Lawndale; opportunities for residents to tell their own stories; demonstrations of quilting and embroidery techniques and lessons learned from community quilting projects across the country.  

Martel Williams participates in After School Matters with BBF, and serves one of the youth facilitators of the project. “Whenever people talk about North Lawndale, they talk about crime, drugs and gangs”, Williams said. “They don’t think about the good things like our community gardens or our positive role models”.  Jazz impresario Ramsey Lewis, filmmaker Robert Townsend and news CLTV news anchor Tanya Francisco all have North Lawndale roots. Other notables include former Congressman Gus Savage who published the Lawndale Booster Newspaper; Brenetta Howell Barrett, the first African American woman from the community to run for Congress; former Bulls players Mickey Johnson, Linton Johnson and Randy Brown; blues singers Otis Clay and Dinah Washington, and actor Andre Brougher.  The community’s most famous former resident is Martin Luther King Jr., who moved his family to the 1500 block of Hamlin to protest deplorable living conditions in the 1960’s.

The project is being documented online at  Visitors will find project updates, brochures, meeting notes, biographies of prominent African Americans from North Lawndale, and quilting resources  and videos of quilting demonstrations and performances from North Lawndale performers.  Even though the blog is a work in progress, arts and crafts organizations from all over the country are beginning to promote the blog as a resource on their own websites.

The North Lawndale African American Heritage Quilting project is open to local schools, churches, block clubs, community based organizations, residents and anyone else who wants to participate. Finished products will be displayed during a community gathering for Black History Month 2012. For further information about the project and how you may get involved, contact                    Valerie F. Leonard at 773-521-3137 or

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