Cuesta Benberry was a self-taught historian of quiltmaking who was instrumental in tracing African-American influences on the art. She died in 2007, leaving behind a rich trove of research that became part of the library of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. "I think we get so emotional about quilts because they're such an integral part of many people's lives," she once told a reporter, according to an obituary by Patricia Sullivan that appeared in the Seattle Times. "They're on the bed. They're there at birth. They're there at death. They're part of the marriage bed. They're part of our lives, and they give us so many memories."
Born in 1923 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Benberry grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. As a young woman, she earned a degree in education at St. Louis's only historically black college, Harris-Stowe State College, which later became Harris-Stowe State University. She later pursued a degree in library science at the University of Missouri's St. Louis campus. From about the mid-1940s until her retirement in 1985, she worked as a teacher and librarian with the St. Louis public school system.
In 1951 she wed a Kentucky man, George Benberry. The women in his family were longtime quilters, and the newlyweds received a quilt as a wedding gift. At first, she recalled, she kept it underneath the bedspread, but then she visited her new in-laws in Kentucky and saw that "they took such great pride in their quilts," she told Jerri Stroud of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "They entered the quilts in county fairs and state fairs and put their quilts in to vie for prizes." Intrigued by this enduring form of textile art, Benberry began collecting the block patterns that quilters regularly traded with one another, and she embarked on a decades-long research mission by visiting county fairs during her summers off from teaching to photograph and document the wide variety of quilt patterns that had developed in the United States since the colonial era.
There were hundreds of quilt block patterns, but Benberry discovered many were duplicates, often called by different names in different regions of the country over various time periods. Her exhaustive attempt to trace the history of these names marked the first time this had been attempted. She began writing on the topic in the 1970s, just as quiltmaking was becoming a serious research area for historians specializing in American folk art. Some of the more established scholars maintained that a small series of quilts, with distinctive patterns and vivid colors, that had been made by African-American women in the Deep South represented the sole black contribution to the form. Benberry countered this assertion in her writings and lectures, noting that generations of African-American women from around the country—in the South, New England, northern cities, and on the expanding Western frontier—had been quiltmakers and contributed significantly to the form, not just copied the work of white quilters. "When I saw that African-American quilt history was becoming the property of a group of scholars that had a very limited outlook on what African-American quilters have done over the years, I believed it was my task to try to give a more accurate and varied picture," she once said, according to her New York Times obituary by Dennis Hevesi.
Recognized as a unique element in American folk art, the quilt had a special significance for African-American history. Even slave women sewed quilts, which made it one of the oldest African-American artistic traditions; in families torn asunder by slavery and in households with scarce material comforts, quilts were often the prized heirlooms in African-American families, and sometimes even the oldest of all the family's material possessions. They served as both a practical item and a link between generations, and with the renewal of interest in quiltmaking in the late twentieth century came a revival of traditional African-American quilting circles in communities across the United States. Some scholars even asserted that messages were hidden in nineteenth-century quilts that served as code along the Underground Railroad that guided escaped slaves to freedom in the North. "It is important to listen to what African-American quiltmakers say about their work and to give them credence, whether or not their comments coincide with researchers' theories and interpretations," Benberry wrote in a 1993 article for American Visions. "It is certainly not useful to view African-American quilts merely as isolated folk art objects, divorced from the lives of blacks and the social, political and economic conditions under which they have lived."
That article appeared a year after her first book, Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts, which was also the title of a museum exhibit she curated in Louisville, Kentucky. She worked with Carol Pinney Crabb to compile two other books on quiltmaking: Patchwork of Pieces: An Anthology of Early Quilt Stories, 1845-1940 and Love of Quilts: A Treasury of Classic Quilting Stories. Other museum exhibits she curated included 20th Century Quilts, 1900-1970: Women Make Their Mark, held at the Museum of the American Quilter's Society in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, and Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans, held at the Old Statehouse Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2000.
In 2004 Benberry donated her vast collection of archival materials to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. She died three years later, on August 23, 2007, just a few weeks shy of her eighty-fourth birthday. Survivors include her husband and their son, George Jr., along with two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, but Benberry also left behind a vital body of research on American quiltmaking and its history. Her interest was purely scholarly: though she owned several quilts, she never made one herself. "Although I am not a quiltmaker, I wear the badge of quilt scholar with honor and pride," she wrote in a 1998 article that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "This field in which I spent so many years embodies ideals in which I strongly believe. The history of American women's quilts parallels and at times surpasses the country's historical progress toward enlightened democratic ideals."
At a Glance …
Born on September 8, 1923, in Cincinnati, OH; died of congestive heart failure on August 23, 2007, in St. Louis, MO; married George Benberry, 1951; children: George Jr. Education: Harris-Stowe State University, degree in education; University of Missouri at St. Louis, MLS.
Career: Teacher and librarian in St. Louis, MO, c. 1945-85; quilt historian, beginning in the 1950s; author of articles and books on the subject and curator of museum exhibits.
Awards: Quilters Hall of Fame, inductee, 1983.
Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts, Kentucky Quilt Project, 1992.
(With Carol Pinney Crabb, comp.) Patchwork of Pieces: An Anthology of Early Quilt Stories, 1845-1940, American Quilter's Society, 1993.
Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans, University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
(With Crabb, comp.) Love of Quilts: A Treasury of Classic Quilting Stories, Voyageur Press, 2004.
American Visions, December-January 1993.
New York Times, September 10, 2007.
Seattle Times, September 9, 2007.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 6, 1998; February 24, 2000.
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