Famous quilt celebrating Black history stolen, found and returned to the Oregon Historical Society

A famous quilt made in the 1970s to teach Black history and shown around the country during the 1976 United States Bicentennial celebration was stolen from the lobby of the Oregon Historical Society in Portland Sunday.

Police recovered the priceless quilt a few blocks from the museum, said museum executive Director Kerry Tymchuk. The theft occurred amid violent protests Sunday night in downtown Portland, several prominent statues were toppled and nearly a dozen windows were broken at the society’s pavilion lobby.

Tymchuk said the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Quilt is in one piece, but it was left out in the rain and some of the fabric colors have run.

The museum’s curatorial staff is drying it out, removing leaves and other debris, and mitigating the damage.

Vandalism to the museum building is estimated to cost about $25,000.

The historic quilt is no longer being displayed, but an online panel discussion scheduled on Thursday to discuss the quilt’s significance will be held. One of the speakers was to be the only surviving member of the quilting group, Sylvia Gates Carlisle.

The quilt was the idea of Carlisle’s mother, Jeanette Gates, an advocate for Black history to be taught in schools. Gates saw the Oregon quilt made for the Bicentennial and invited 14 other Black women in Portland to create squares for a quilt representing Black culture.

Each of the 30 blocks that form the king-size quilt depict a significant event, person or group in America’s Black history, starting in 1492 with Black Spanish explorer Pedro Alonso Niño piloting the Santa Maria in Columbus’s expedition to America, to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“Mrs. Gates was determined that the Bicentennial exhibit include African-American heritage,” says quilt historian Mary Bywater Cross. “This sophisticated story quilt reflects 500 years of Black history not seen in textbooks.”

Cross sees a direct link between Portland’s Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Quilt made 44 years ago and recent storied quilts that address gun violence, racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, such as the exhibit “Gone but Never Forgotten: Remembering Those Lost to Police Brutality” at the Textile Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

On Oct. 15, textile consultant Sheridan Collins will lead an online discussion about Portland’s quilt with historian Carmen Thompson and Cross.

The free event, conducted over Zoom from noon to 1 p.m., is part of Portland Textile Month, a series of events in October organized by Caleb Sayan of Portland’s Textile Hive.

Sayan said he has a sense of guilt requesting that the Oregon Historical Society display the quilt in the lobby for the month.

“It’s not the worse-case scenario, but it’s troubling to have something damaged,” said Sayan.

The quilt, an applique style that uses stitchery, is part of the permanent collection at the Oregon Historical Society.

“Quilts are visual records that tell stories,” says Cross. “Mrs. Gates wrote that she wanted the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Quilt to focus on the issues that unite African-Americans: Religious heritage, struggle against oppression and the strength of family ties. This is an empowering quilt.”

— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman

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