Johnson House quilter stitches together stories of freedom

When Nancy Shell walked through the door of the Johnson House something indescribable came over her. She was there to discuss the possibility of becoming a member of the historic site’s team, teaching in their educational quilting program. Instead she spent most of her time talking about her intense desire to do a fabric art variation on the human genome project – a freedom quilt.

Shell created The Freedom Quilt Project to serve as a vehicle for the Northwest Philadelphia community to speak openly about the many forms of freedom and the differing roads their ancestors traveled to achieve freedom. The quilt would serve as a reminder that freedom is not free.

Shell wanted the quilt to be a collaborative effort so she would no longer have to sew alone. She and the Johnson House put up a flyer calling for other quilters to assist with the project. Several women responded and all demonstrated a different skill level in sewing, designing and maintain the integrity of the quilt. She learned a valuable lesson from one of the group members that group referred to as the quilt whisperer: “you have to work with the fabric in order to get it to become what you want to be.” Even though the women began meeting in October, the production didn’t begin until Christmas Eve.

In addition to utilizing some of the fabric that was filling her basement from other projects, she also wanted to pay homage to her grandmother Nannie Lu Louis, the daughter of a slave and a plantation owner, who introduced her to quilting. “When I was young she would wrap me in these quilts and I was fascinated by the colors and I would sit for hours on the bed studying them,” said Shell. “She didn’t think much of them saying ‘oh child that’s just old clothes we sewed together.”

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For Shell, her grandmother, whom she was named after, was the epitome of freedom. To show her gratitude for her grandmother’s strength and inspiration, Shell printed words of thanks on the five inch by five inch squares of muslin that she sewed into the “Freedom is in the DNA”quilt.

The 45-foot linear quilt became a testament to Philadelphians’ ancestors and a way to tell the untold stories of their families’ past. The quilt dealt with varying themes such as slavery and Jim Crow laws, deportation, racial discrimination, the holocaust and in reaction to the recent murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the freedom to walk to the corner.

More than 700 people ranging from three years of age to 96 contributed to the quilt at various events and at last year’s Juneteenth Celebration. “The wisdom that is in this quilt is phenomenal,” said Shell.

In the future, Shell hopes the freedom quilt will become an ongoing project. She would also like to one day establish an official quilting guild and have the quilt displayed in the Smithsonian Museum.

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