The e-mail came with a puzzling message in the subject line: "KKK quilt." It was from a local high school teacher who had read about my recently published book on African American quilters. One of the many quilts she had inherited, the woman wrote, had a Ku Klux Klan theme. She thought I might be interested in its story.
I'd heard of Klan quilts, though they're surprisingly uncommon -- particularly considering that the wives and daughters of "Kluxers" during the early 20th century often got together to socialize and support the cause.
The Michigan State University Museum, I knew, had accepted the gift of a Klan quilt several years ago. According to the donor, his grandfather had won it at a raffle held at a KKK meeting. The white fabric in the blue and white quilt, he said, was recycled Klan sheets, and attendees at the meeting where it was raffled had paid 10 cents each to have their names stitched on the fabric.
I was eager to see what promised to be a fascinating -- if disturbing -- historical artifact, so one afternoon this spring I met the teacher, Linda Brant, at her school, and we laid out a red, white and blue quilt on a large table. The quilt's 18 primary blocks each carried a fiery-red cross surrounded by white and blue squares in what quilters call a nine-patch pattern. Each small blue and white square of fabric had meticulous white stitches that formed an "X," bringing to mind the Confederate flag. The quilt could easily have been seen as simply having a Christian theme. But the story Linda told -- along with the bright red crosses often used in Klan imagery -- suggested otherwise.
Quilters have longed used their skills in the service of political, social and religious affiliations. Quilts have celebrated sororities and garden clubs; they've memorialized AIDS victims and honored subjects of the Tuskegee Experiment. And there was this quilt, celebrating the chilling Klan practice of burning crosses at outdoor meetings or near the homes of those the group wanted to intimidate.
Over the last few decades, I have conducted research on and taught about the role the KKK played in American history. I have seen and handled Klan ephemera before, and it can be unsettling. But seeing this quilt unfolded by the hands of woman who rallied support for Hurricane Katrina victims and who was a staunch supporter of Barack Obama's candidacy did not unduly disturb me. My thoughts focused on how useful the quilt would be in teaching about the contrasts and connections between early 20th century and early 21st century racial mores. Later, when I took it to a black photographer to document it, we both found it troubling. But that first time, hearing Brant's candid recollection of her family's past, my emotions took a back seat to my academic interest.
Brant told me that the quilt had been passed down to her from her mother, who had spent her adolescence in the home of a relative -- a cousin of her grandmother -- in Leavenworth, Kan. Brant told me that her mother didn't recall her relatives using racial slurs, but she did remember her cousin's husband dressing up in Klan garb and heading to meetings. The cousin hosted a group of female Klan teenagers every Wednesday night, but Brant's mother stayed in her bedroom during those weekly sessions.
The quilt, Brant's mother told her, was made by her relative during the late 1920s and used only on "special occasions," when guests came to stay. When her cousin moved into a nursing home, Brant's mother became the custodian of her quilts.
Brant had no reservations about lending it to me so that I could have it photographed. The quilt made her uncomfortable, she said, as it had her mother. In the 1980s, the teacher's mother, herself a first-rate quilter, attached tags to the quilt, saying "property of" with the name of her relative. She didn't want anyone to think she had made it herself. But because, from a technical standpoint, it was one of her cousin's best efforts, she took it to be documented during a Kansas quilt survey. The quilter in her couldn't pass up an opportunity to document her relative's fine work, but she was ashamed of the Klan theme, so she told the quilt scholars that it celebrated Christianity.
I left the school very pleased that Brant had tracked me down, and not just because I got to see and examine a quilt of historic significance. That afternoon -- as we discussed the seemingly disparate subjects of quilting and racial hatred -- felt like yet another step on our country's long, slow path to racial reconciliation.
Seventy years or so ago, a white woman in Kansas made a quilt celebrating the Klan. Fifty years later, its inheritor found herself unable to discuss the quilt's provenance with the mostly white Kansas quilt documenters. Today, that woman's daughter felt comfortable reaching out to an African American professor to tell the true story and to get help figuring out what to do with the quilt. We will work together to ensure the quilt lands in an archive where students and scholars will have access to it. It's a small step, perhaps, but small steps add up.