Designed by Ruth Clement Bond while she and her husband, Dr. J. Max Bond, were living in northern Alabama due to his Tennessee Valley Authority job, this symbolically rich quilt celebrates the expanded opportunities for Black Americans under the New Deal. The Bonds advocated for better conditions for dam builders and their families.
Bond began a home-beautification program making curtains and rugs with the wives of Black workers. She also provided the women (many of whom were expert quilters) with graphic quilt designs: she would cut the pattern pieces out of paper and choose the colors, and the women would piece and quilt the cotton fabric. Although the maker of this quilt is still unknown, in 1937, the Pickwick Dam Negro Women’s Association gave it to Maurice F. Seay, director of the educational program at the TVA dam sites, because he led the creation of integrated educational programs for all people in the area.
This quilt is full of symbols, including the sun, vegetation, and a banjo—a likely deliberate reference to the African-derived musical instrument that arrived in the United States with enslaved people. About the central figure, which bears a resemblance to the graphic work of artist Aaron Douglas, Bond has stated, “The man with his banjo is full of frivolity. He is between the hand of the government [TVA] and the hand of a woman. He must choose between the government job and the life he has known . . . . We wanted to show that he chose the TVA job. It has a hopeful message . . . things were getting better and the black worker had a part in it.”
As part of the Decorative Arts and Design department, this exceptional and rare quilt is an object of Black craft activism—Bond was an activist, educator, diplomat, and designer of quilts, who, according to her obituary in The New York Times, “helped transform the American quilt from a utilitarian bedcovering into a work of avant-garde social commentary.”