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Every February, Rocky Mountain Wa Shonaji invites a well-known quilter to give a lecture in Denver. This year, the group (whose name means "people who sew" in Swahili) selected Raymond Dobard, a respected quilter and art-history professor from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Two years ago, Dobard, who gave his speech last weekend, co-wrote a book called Hidden in Plain View, which tells the incredible story of how quilts were used by escaping slaves to communicate along the Underground Railroad. In his lecture, he talked about the importance of traditions being passed down through generations and how stories can be stitched into quilts.
Plain View's other author, local writer Jacqueline Tobin -- who actually conceived of the idea for the book and conducted most of the research -- wasn't invited by either Wa Shonaji or by Dobard, a slight that has now become an old story for Tobin. "I certainly have no problems not being invited by quilt guilds," she says, but she is hurt that Dobard didn't extend her an invitation. "I don't think he gets it. This is just not professional courtesy."
Guild member Juanita Roper says the oversight wasn't intentional. "We're a small group with very limited funds. We were kind of looking for someone to be our guest for Black History Month." But Maude Southwell Wahlman, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor who wrote a foreword for the book, says it was especially disappointing for Tobin because the event was in Denver. "It's not right that she's not sharing the platform with him in her hometown," Wahlman says.
Published in 1999, the book has been successful, but Tobin believes Dobard has received more publicity -- and more credit -- because he is black and she is white.
Jen Marshall, the publicity director for Anchor Books, which published a paperback edition of Plain View last year, denies this. "There was never a preference expressed for either author," she says. "I certainly never saw anything in the media's perception."
Dobard suggests that maybe he received more attention -- an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show and a near-appearance on NBC's Today Show, as well as newspaper interviews -- because he was already an established quilter, and because, as he puts it, "I am a man, a quilter, in a field that's dominated by women."
The idea for the book took root in 1993 as Tobin was researching women who made grass baskets at the historic market in Charleston, South Carolina -- a major port of entry for enslaved Africans. While she was exploring the market, Tobin was drawn to a stall filled with hundreds of rolled-up quilts. An imposing black woman held court amidst the stunning patchworks. She looked Tobin over. "Well, come here," she ordered, and Tobin followed her to the back of the stall, where the woman unrolled a quilt -- never taking her eyes off Tobin. The antique quilts, the woman explained, had been used to relay information between escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. The geometry of the designs held coded meanings that were understandable to black Africans but undetectable by their masters.
As the woman continued to talk, Tobin realized that something deeper was embedded in their exchange -- "The beginning of a revelation," she calls it.
Tobin returned to Denver and wrote her article on the basket weavers, but she couldn't forget the mysterious quilt woman. She still had a flier with the woman's name, Ozella McDaniel Williams, and her telephone number, so Tobin decided to call Williams and reintroduce herself.
"I know who you are," Williams said.
When Tobin asked for more information about the quilts, Williams laughed gently and said, "Oh, honey, I can't tell you that story now, but you'll get it when you're ready." For a writer, being ready means only one thing: knowing your subject. So, for the next four years, Tobin researched everything she could about quilting and its role in African-American history. She interviewed scholars. She traveled the Mississippi River, looking for quilters at community centers. She toured Civil War sites and Mississippi plantations to soak up the atmosphere of the antebellum South. The story stayed alive in her mind, but she couldn't get the specifics. Many people knew that quilts had been used to communicate, but it seemed that no one knew quite how. Except Ozella.
Then Tobin returned unannounced to Charleston and sought out the quilt stall, tape player and notebook at the ready. Williams was there, and she ordered Tobin to pick up some quilts and take them to the back. Williams joined her, and there they remained for the next three hours. Saturday mornings at the market are "chaotic at best," says Tobin, but "not one person interrupted us. No noise. No nothing. Just she and I." It was a spiritual connection between two women, one with a tradition to pass on, the other ready to receive it.
Williams taught Tobin the "language" of the quilts -- exactly how their imagery communicated messages and what they said. It was the first of three interviews. (Tobin later learned that Williams, underneath the folksy, mystic persona she used at the marketplace, was actually a former principal in California. The last time the two met was at Williams's home in April 1998; Ozella was sick with cancer but had told no one. Six weeks later she was dead.)