Black History Month: Tiffany Momon lectures on Quilts by African American Women

Tiffany Momon and Jeff Sellers at Tennessee State Museum lecture on Using Quilts to Interpret the Experiences of African American Women in Tennessee. (Photo by Cass Teague)

Tiffany Momon gave a fascinating lecture at the new Tennessee State Museum (TSM) on Using Quilts to Interpret the Experiences of African American Women in Tennessee on Wednesday, February 13. The lecture was one in a series scheduled to augment the new exhibition, Between the Layers: Art & Story in Tennessee Quilts, which will be on display through July 7, 2019. Momon is currently finishing work on her Ph.D. after completing a Masters degree in Public History at MTSU and a Bachelors degree in African American Studies at the University of Memphis.

Momon was introduced by Jeff Sellers, the Director of Education and Community Engagement for TSM. Sellers welcomed the dozens in attendance and encouraged them to enjoy lunch and stay after for a question and answer session, which resulted in half a dozen inquiries. Sellers noted that Momon is currently a visiting professor at MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation, and also has served on the TSM Board of Scholars, as well as a Fellow of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts Institute.

In her talk, Momon focused primarily on a Double Wedding Ring Quilt that was made by Harriett Meneese Falls, a craftswoman and artisan born into slavery in 1863. She noted that the Double Wedding Ring Quilt is a traditional pattern of quilt that was symbolic of the rings used in wedding ceremonies for the bride and groom. Momon described in detail the fabrics, colors, textures, and technical aspects of the quilt while venturing deeply into the sociopolitical dimensions of the work, and its creator(s). The quilt was made from a notoriously difficult pattern, and, according to Candace Adelson, the TSM Senior Curator for Fashion and Textiles, Harriett had “done it like a virtuoso.”

Interestingly, the quilt was given by its creator, Harriett Falls, to a young girl for whom she had served as nanny from 1914-1918. Ironically, the girl, Maxine Elliott, never married.

“Outside of Harriett’s role as the nanny of Maxine Elliott who was she?” posed Momon. “We know from the quilt in the museum’s collection that she was a tremendously skilled artisan. This is an often under acknowledged aspect of American life. Often African Americans whether enslaved or free were seen as simply producing products or objects to be used, yet there is an abundance of material culture whether it be objects, literature, architecture, or artifacts that refute that they were just machines making objects. As seen through Harriett’s quilt, these were true artisans who made pieces of art despite the fact that objects such as quilts had practical, no frills uses.”

Using over two dozen slides in her presentation, Momon detailed the geneology of Harriett and Maxine, noting that they were located in the footprint of the Wessyngton Plantation, featured in the PBS / NPT documentary Wessyngton Plantation: A Family’s Road to Freedom. The documentary can be seen Monday, February 25, at 11:30 pm, on NPT-HD, Channel 8.1 in the Nashville area.