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(Photo by George Vogel)

A NEIGHBORLY GESTURE: Residents of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood gather to reminisce over black and white photographs, some almost 100 years old, that have been scanned onto fabric and sewn into the quilt, which was two years in the making. The quilt is the Arts Council of Princeton's tribute to the town's African American community.

Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Celebrated By Arts Council Quilt

Candace Braun

A permanent tribute to Princeton's historical Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood was unveiled by the Arts Council of Princeton on Sunday: a hand-crafted quilt by West Windsor quilter Gail Mitchell.

Two years in the making, the quilt was created with the help of Princeton residents Shirley Satterfield, Minnie Craig, Lois Craig, and Cynthia (Chip) Fisher. According to Ms. Mitchell, the objective was to "reflect the history of Princeton below Nassau Street."

To gather material for the quilt, the women called upon their neighbors of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood to submit photos that reflected the history of Princeton's black community.

"We didn't know at the time that we'd have more than 90 photos to work with," said Ms. Mitchell.

Among the photos are one of Witherspoon Street as it appeared in the 1920s, an original photo of the Witherspoon Street Church, a 1908 photo of the original Witherspoon School for Colored Children, and an aerial view of Jackson Street, now Paul Robeson Place.

Princeton personalities highlighted on the quilt include residents like Emma Epps, Henry Pannell, Howard B. Waxwood, Jr., and Kathleen (Kappy) Montgomery Edwards. There is even a 1938 photo of one of the quilt's designers, Lois Craig.

Along the border are squares made of different patterns of black and white fabric, each with a spot for a signature by one of the "old timers" from the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, according to Minnie Craig.

The back is sewn in what is known as a log cabin pattern in quilting. Ms. Mitchell used it because during the time of the Underground Railroad women would hang a quilt with this pattern on the clothes line to signal to slaves that the home was a safe place to hide.

"Even though I was born and raised in this community, I learned a lot by making this quilt," said Ms. Fisher, indicating that she knows much more about the history of the town and its people now than she had when she first started the project.

"When we made this quilt we reminisced," said Ms. Satterfield, who, along with the other women involved with the quilt's design, was thanked by Ms. Mitchell with a quilted pillow stitched with a photo of the women.
Bittersweet Reminder

The devastation Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast make the quilt a "bittersweet reminder to preserve our community any way we can," said Ms. Mitchell.

"For me this has been a very special event. I've really enjoyed meeting my fellow sisters here," she said, recalling the many stories she heard from residents of the community as the project progressed.

"There was a vital African American community in Princeton despite segregation," she continued, noting that her involvement with the project helped her forward her own mission, to teach the world about the history of the black community.

Ms. Mitchell is a fourth and fifth grade teacher of English as a Second Language in the West Windsor-Plainsboro Schools. First discovering her passion for quilting in 1989, she now uses it as an aid in teaching her students about the American culture and American holidays, as well as the history of African Americans, which, she admits, she had to research a great deal herself, as she wasn't taught very much about it during her own schooling in New Jersey.

Ms. Mitchell was first commissioned to make the quilt by Janet Stern, a member of the Arts Council's Board of Trustees, as well as its former program director. Ms. Stern first got the idea for the quilt after watching a PBS program on quilts made in Alabama.

"This project brought together people who might not otherwise have crossed paths, and that is just one of the reasons why we are so excited about it," said Ms. Stern, adding that the quilt will be part of the Arts Council's permanent exhibit dedicated to the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.

Beginning this Saturday, the quilt will be on display at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion in Cadwalader Park, as part of an exhibit that is being presented in collaboration with McCarter Theatre, "Preserving Our Past: An Inspiring Exhibit Honoring Those Who Chronicle Our Age."

The quilt will remain there through January 22, 2006, after which it will be exhibited at the African American churches in Princeton.



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