An Underground Railroad Quilt is Made in Honor of Black History Month


Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, the building that houses May Institute’s Mashpee Day Habilitation program stood quiet and empty. Like many other programs, schools, organizations, and businesses, it was forced to close its doors in mid-March in response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus. While the world outside was changing, everything inside stayed the same, including a calendar that remained unturned for six months. 

The building returned to life again last September when the program partially reopened and a new menu of remote learning opportunities and fun activities was launched.

Today, a beautiful patchwork quilt consisting of 30 colorfully decorated squares holds a place of honor in the lobby. This amazing replica of an Underground Railroad quilt was created during Black History Month (February 2021) by men and women with special needs who receive services from the Mashpee program. 

The quilt was the brainchild of Chloë Keller, Service Manager, and Jayma Tilton, Assistant Director of Day Services, who coordinated the project during online arts and crafts learning sessions they lead weekly via Zoom.

When their day habilitation program closed, Chloë and Jayma both went to work at May Institute group homes where many of the individuals who used to receive in-person services at the Mashpee center reside. When the program reopened, it was determined that it would be safest for the men and women who live in the May residences to participate in services remotely, rather than in-person, for the time being.

Embracing Remote Learning
“We knew remote learning would be challenging for individuals with special needs,” said Jayma. “How were we going to do it? How would we get the additional technology we needed? We were determined to get the ball rolling. Establishing the remote learning program was a team effort.”

“When the virus was identified as being a serious threat, out biggest concern was protecting the individuals and keeping them healthy,” Chloë said. “We closed our program on March 13, 2020, and then the world shut down. Most of the individuals remain in their homes. They miss us. They miss their friends. They miss their work. We wanted to be able to provide them with opportunities for socialization.”

“We started with one house that has five women who we felt would engage successfully via remote learning,” said Jayma. “We slowly began introducing more homes to the Zoom meetings and our program grew from there.”

With the help of May’s Information Technology and Facilities departments, Chloë and Jayma obtained laptop computers for 12 of the homes that participate in their day program. By October, they were offering three Zoom learning sessions a week to the individuals in those homes. In December, they expanded the program to offer five sessions a week. Weekly sessions incorporate exercise, arts and crafts, wellness, cooking, and music into online learning. On some days, as many as 47 men and women attend.

“It’s been a challenge, but it has also been a lot of fun,” said Chloë. 

The Underground Railroad Quilt 
Although creating the quilt that now hangs in the lobby in Mashpee was an arts and crafts activity, the project also included a lot of learning and teaching about famous African Americans. It began with Chloë and Jayma researching Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

“Jayma and I knew we wanted to focus on Harriet Tubman during Black History month, so we started learning everything we could about her,” said Chloë. “Harriet was brave, headstrong, determined, tenacious, and hopeful. She basically rerouted the Underground Railroad after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed. During the Civil War, she worked for the Union Army as a cook and then a nurse, then a spy. Jayma and I are both strong, independent females, so Harriet’s story really spoke to us. We really wanted to embrace that during Black History Month.”

Another story they found about Harriet Tubman was that she used to sing songs that had secret messages for escaping slaves. For example, when she sang “Wade in the Water,” she was telling slaves to stay in the water so dogs would not find them.

While they were learning about the Underground Railroad, Jayma and Chloë came across information about “quilt codes,” or messages for runaway slaves that were depicted within quilts. Although the existence of codes in quilts and the stories about Harriet Tubman’s songs with messages are largely considered to be folklore, learning about them gave Chloë and Jayma the idea for the art project. “We meshed Harriet’s singing secret codes with the stories about codes in the Underground Railroad quilts and came up with our project,” said Chloë.

“We wanted to make something colorful that all our individuals could do,” said Jayma, “so we decided on African quilt motifs. We figured out what symbols would be used during that time and what they meant. Chloë cut out all the triangles and squares and we sent them off to the individuals in the houses with instructions for how they could affix the shapes onto their patches.”

Learning About Famous Black Americans
While they were working on this project, some of the individuals provided presentations about black history for Zoom attendees. Moriah gave a program on Harriet Tubman, Karen shared stories about former President Barack Obama, Kayla talked about entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker, and Ki provided information about the black artist Ashley Bryan.

The individuals very much enjoyed these informative and entertaining learning sessions. “Harriet Tubman was brave,” said Karen, “and I loved making the quilt.”

After all the squares were returned, it took Chloë about two weeks to sew them together using yarn and a paper clip. “The best reaction was when we showed all the individuals the finished product,” she said. “It was priceless. They all clapped and said things like, ‘Oh, my goodness! And ‘It’s beautiful!’ It was really heartwarming.”

“The quilt is beautiful and I’m really proud of our individuals,” said Chloë. “They did it. If it weren’t for their contributions, it wouldn’t be hanging in our lobby.”

“We miss them and can’t wait for them to come back to work! said Jayma. “Being able to see and interact with them remotely is the next best thing! We are so grateful to everyone who has supported and encouraged us to take on this unique challenge.” 

See all of the photos of the quilt project.