A Seattle man’s 19th-century quilts tell our story of slavery and freedom

Mollie Barnes had a story to tell and a message to share, originating from plantations and farms in Kentucky and Tennessee. Although Mollie was originally enslaved in the late 1850s, her continuing story was that of a newly freed woman. Mollie’s tale would be told and passed down through generations using the tradition of African American oral history and her beautiful quilts. Her message was intended for other enslaved people seeking freedom, her own children, and their descendants—all of whom would become free years after her passing.

Her great-great-grandson, Jim Tharpe, is now entrusted with the precious heirlooms. Tharpe aspires to share her story with the entire country through a traveling quilt exhibit, with a dream that the collection will continue to educate people for numerous decades. The story of Mollie and her family reflects the morality, bigotry and belief in a better future that have affected most black families that, like Tharpe, have origins in slavery.

Like Mollie, many other enslaved women were left with the task of creating quilts, items that historians believe had symbols and secret message maps to help guide people to escape slavery. The authenticity of his great-great-grandmother’s collection, dated from the 1850s to the 1870s, has been verified by an appraiser that met Tharpe in 2017 and a curator at the Tennessee State Museum in 2020.

After being freed, Mollie continued to make quilts, which were handed down to her daughters. Tharpe treats these quilts with the utmost care and respect as they tell the history of his family and the country. These quilts were created to reflect a legacy of hardship and perseverance, much like the overall history of African Americans.

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