By Jannette J. Witmyer,
Special to the AFRO
When Rhonda Masters, co-founder of the National African American Quilt Guild (NAAQG), learned that the Universal Sailing Club (USC), a Baltimore-based organization of Black sailors, was preparing to commemorate the 10th anniversary of “Souls at Sea,” a two-part remembrance ceremony honoring the lives of enslaved men, women, and children lost during the Middle Passage of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, she was blown away. After speaking with Regina Hartfield, the program’s founder and a longtime USC member, Masters considered it a call to action for members of NAAQG to create a quilt in reverence of the lives lost.
Now completed, The Souls at Sea Quilt will be donated during the on-land portion of the ceremony at 1 p.m., Saturday, August 19, 2023, at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD. USC members and their guests will then take to their sailboats and the waters to conduct the second portion, an on-water ancestral libation and remembrance ceremony.
Recalling her initial reaction, Masters says, “I just thought, wow, this is such a beautiful idea. To be out on the water, pouring libations, having a ceremony, and placing flowers in remembrance of the ancestors, that is dynamite. You know…?”
According to Masters, the idea of creating and donating a quilt came naturally. “The mission of NAAQG is to uplift African American quilting and each other. We are excited to use our quilting to portray our history and heritage,” she explains.
This is not the first quilt donated by NAAQG to a Maryland institution. After launching its inaugural convention at the Dorchester Center for the Arts in Cambridge, MD in 2021 (https://afro.com/national-african-american-quilt-guild-convention-honoring-the-art-and-history-of-quilt-making/), the organization donated a 6×9 foot Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Quilt, representing all stops along the Underground Railroad as shown in its driving guide, to the Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center in Cambridge, MD in 2022.
Based on the inspiration of a slave ship, the soon-to-be-donated collaborative sampler quilt required that quilters select, research, and artistically interpret a documented slave ship, and then design and create their block. The tireless efforts of the quilters, located around the U.S. (six in MD and nine in PA, LA, TX, and WA), are represented in an original 16-block quilt, which measures 56 x 70 inches and depicts 14 slave ships. In addition to the block-makers, others contributed by designing and assembling the quilt top, embroidering ship names and logos, and quilting and binding the quilt once the blocks had been sewn together.
Hartfield, who met Masters and Sharon Mooney, another of NAAQG’s co-founders, while they were working on the Harriet Tubman project, was taken by their generosity when they offered to donate a quilt. Having seen the Tubman quilt workmanship and been raised by a mother “who made all the most important outfits in my life, including my wedding dress and christening gowns for my babies,” she says that she was extremely grateful for the gesture and that they did not disappoint.
“I got a sneak peek at what they’ve done. First of all, the craftsmanship the craftsmanship is amazing. I have a full appreciation for the craftsmanship in the work that they do and what it took to create these pieces.”
Hartfield describes herself as a “rusty sailor” now but says that she was inspired to find a way to pay homage to the ancestors early in her membership to USC, which was founded by Black sailors Marcus Asante and Michael Campbell in 2001.
“When we would go out to sail, and I would see how everyone, all of these captains, their first mates, and we all were privileged, privileged to be on these beautiful boats and sailing wherever we wanted to, at any given time. And it just made me think back to our ancestors who came here totally against their will and totally under the worst of circumstances, with no choice and no opportunity to say no, I don’t want to do this. It just seemed like it was right for us, descendants who have the privilege and the honor to do so, to make these decisions and to be on the water as we wanted to, to honor those lives that were lost along the Middle Passage,” she explains.
She continues, “Collaborating and hosting this at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is a wonderful full circle experience. It acknowledges the African American contributions to the maritime industry on the Eastern Shore in particular, which is very important to us as an African American sailing club in Baltimore.”
Participation in the on-land Souls at Sea ceremony will require payment of a general admission fee to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, which will also provide access to other activities and exhibitions on the premises.
For additional information about the National African American Quilt Guild, visit https://naaqg.org/
For additional information about the Universal Sailing Club, visit https://www.universalsailingclub.org/
For additional information about the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, visit https://cbmm.org/