The fabric tells a story. In the careful stitches, the colors, the pieces, a narrative takes shape. The blue water, the bright sun overhead, the American flag. In the center, a black fist holds a red lightning bolt. Harnessing power, and powerful itself.
This fabric is a quilt, designed by Ruth Clement Bond, one of six so-called TVA Quilts, sewn by women whose husbands worked at Wheeler Dam for the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s. During Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government established the Tennessee Valley Authority, designed to harness the region’s rivers to create cheap electric power for much of the South. With its success, the South was altered dramatically, and the TVA has been enshrined in the history of North Alabama. And yet, many of the contributions made by black Americans who worked for TVA have been erased. Facing discrimination, segregated facilities, and lower pay, black workers for TVA nevertheless helped power the electric revolution by innovating and laboring.
While Dr. J Max Bond, a personnel officer, was supervising workers at Wheeler Dam, his wife Ruth Bond was designing, illustrating, and organizing. Mrs. Bond and the other women in her TVA wives’ beautification group, like Rosa Marie Thomas, were not simply making quilts; they were using tradition to document cultural changes occurring in the South, and black Americans’ influence on them. It was “an attempt to revive the arts and crafts that were known to the Negro race during slavery,” Mr. Bond told TVA President Arthur Morgan in 1935, according to TVA history, continuing, they are “attempting to use their handicraft to express the part that the Negro is playing in changing the South.” (TVA)
“Our first quilt we called ‘Black Power’,” Ruth Bond recalled, in an oral history with the Associated for the American Foreign Services Worldwide and reported by Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb of the Washington Post. (LA Times) “The first quilt showed a bolt of lightning signifying power, held in the hand of a black worker.” While the political movement known as Black Power would not be fully articulated until decades later by Stokely Carmichael and others, the long struggle for black representation and freedom had been long underway. In Alabama in the 1930s, church and civic organizations, including the Communist Party, were organizing black workers to assert their collective power (Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe). Even as the specter of racial violence terrorized and Jim Crow laws protected exploitation and white supremacy (Scottsboro Boys), black Americans resisted erasure and dehumanization. In her stitches and creativity, Ruth Bond and the other makers of TVA quilts preserved for posterity the work of black people in building the South.
Bond understood that in designing these quilts she was doing something symbolic. The daughter of an AME bishop with a master’s degree in English Literature she was aware of the spiritual and cultural resonance of symbol and material. And she certainly understood the diasporic struggle of black people for freedom. Ruth Bond and her husband would eventually leave Alabama. She would go on to teach in New Orleans and Tuskegee, Haiti and Atlanta and Malawi, and numerous other locales as her husband served in the American Foreign Service around the world. Always educating, looking for beauty, designing, and making.
Remembering her time in Alabama, Bond described being captivated by the rural Alabama traditions she encountered, in particular the way that women of color designed and used fabrics. The TVA Quilts would use those indigenous traditions to document the changing South and call for even more change. “Things were getting better,” she said, “and the black worker had a part in it.” The TVA Quilts tells a history in fabric. And it is a story, of course, that is ongoing. (E.L Helton, Resources for Teachers: The Tennessee Valley Authority)
Here at Alabama Chanin we have always believed in the power of making. And through Natalie’s non-profit, Project Threadways, the story of textiles—and the stories and accounts of those involved in their creation—are recognized, celebrated, and used to document the way the act of making them shaped the lives of communities and the individuals of those communities.
In partnership with the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area and the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Project Threadways collects oral histories, analyzes and publishes data, and stages events that serve as centers for conversation, exploring the connection between community and the evolving region through the lens of material culture.
Our planned Project Threadways Symposium for 2022 is tilted “Textiles and Activism.” Subscribe to the newsletter to learn more about our upcoming works and events. We are currently seeking to reunite the TVA quilts of Mrs. Ruth Bond for display in the Shoals community during this Symposium. If you or someone you know could assist in this effort, please reach out to us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to Dr. Ansley Quiros for writing this post.
Ansley is a new contributing writer to the Alabama Chanin Journal. You’ll be seeing more of her work here in the future. Get to know her here. Read more from her here. And follow her here.
Quilt images from top
Source: Museum of Arts and Design
Tennessee Valley Authority Appliqué Quilt Design of a Black Fist, Ruth Clement Bond (designer) and Rosa Marie Thomas (maker); 1934, Museum of Arts and Design; Gift of Mrs. Rosa Philips Thomas, 1994.
Tennessee Valley Authority Appliqué Quilt Design of Man with Crane, Ruth Clement Bond (designer) and Rosa Marie Thomas (maker); 1934, Museum of Arts and Design; Gift of Mrs. Rosa Philips Thomas, 1994.
Tennessee Valley Authority Appliqué Quilt Design of Man with Musical Instrument, Ruth Clement Bond (designer) and Rosa Marie Thomas (maker); 1934, Museum of Arts and Design; Gift of Mrs. Rosa Philips Thomas, 1994.
Image of Ruth Clement Bond courtesy of Sarah Bond