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Quilt to soothe family, counter hate

Fifty people in the United States, Canada and Sweden work on a comforting gesture for the family of the black man dragged to death in Texas.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 27, 1999

CLEARWATER -- Surrounded by brightly colored bolts of material and handmade teddy bears, Gale Pittman glances out of the window of Country Quilts 'n Bears, waiting for Marilyn Sobel of Tampa to arrive with The Quilt.

It is a work of love for the family of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death in Texas by white men last June. Marianna Greenberg of Nevada City, Calif., an enthusiastic quilter who networks with other quilters via the Internet, came up with the idea of making the memorial quilt. On Feb. 24, she posted her idea to the RCTQ (rec.crafts.textiles.quilting) online news group.

Within a couple of hours, 15 people had responded, and by the end of the day more than 50 quilters had volunteered for the project.

Before the first patch was created, Greenberg got in touch with Byrd's mother, Stella Byrd, in Jasper, Texas, to make sure she was comfortable with the effort.

"It's people like you who have kept us going," Mrs. Byrd responded. "May God bless all of you."

In her e-mail to her fellow quilters, Greenberg wrote: "James' murder was supposed to cause a race war and divide people, but it has had the opposite effect. It has made people realize that it is time to speak out and act in whatever small way is possible for us, and when all these small acts are put together we know we have made a difference."

Forty-eight women (two from the Tampa Bay area) and two children from across the United States, Canada and Sweden worked on the gift.

The only requirement was that the individual squares measure 6 inches. The quilters were free to express their creativity. Pittman, a dental hygienist who lives in Pinellas Park, elected to do a friendship star surrounded by appliqued hearts. Sobel, a nurse at Tampa General Hospital, did a string piecing with 14 strips of fabric.

The squares are as different as the quilters themselves. There are blocks with stars, crosses, flowers and vines, the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew, multicolored hands and hearts, horns (James Byrd Jr. played the horn in his church orchestra) and a baseball cap. Greenberg's 11-year-old son, Toby, created two squares, as did his 9-year-old sister, Liana.

All of the quilters completed their task within two weeks and sent the finished squares to Greenberg.

Some, including Pittman, sent contributions to cover mailing expenses. Many included personal background information along with messages for the Byrd family. Greenberg then mailed the squares to Sue DiNapoli in Ithaca, N.Y., who laid out the design for the queen-size quilt and grouped the squares. She found a deep blue and gold fabric backing.

Traditionally, quilts are backed with plain fabric, but DiNapoli chose the richer-looking material.

"Behind the front of this quilt, which is so diverse, you've got this wonderful, rich fabric," she says.

DiNapoli is a stay-at-home mother who is the children's music director and hand bell choir leader for First Presbyterian Church in Ithaca. "The pieces decided where they wanted to be," she says.

"I started with the blocks that were about James, the ones like the one that was an outline of the state of Texas with a bird in the center; the one with a piano representing the church music he so loved. ... These were the ones I used in the center of the quilt."

At first the quilt was difficult to visualize. Then, DiNapoli's husband, Ron, nailed a sheet to a wall so she could move the squares around. "It also kept my 2-year-son, Christopher, out of the project," she says, laughing. "I sewed during Christopher's naptime and after he went to bed.

"This quilt will show that there is friendship and love in the world, and at least as much or more than ere is hatred and racism."

While DiNapoli was designing and assembling the quilt, Susan Sisk of Lexington, S.C., was working on a Web site for the quilt (

Sisk has placed a picture of each block on the Web site and information about who created it. Sisk keeps the volunteers up to date as she adds photographs and information.

As soon as DiNapoli was finished with her part, she sent the work to Peggy McDaniel in Quinlan, Texas, for quilting.

"I have a son, and my heart goes out to (the Byrd family)," says McDaniel, a retired hairdresser. "That's just a useless loss of life, and a horrible way to die."

Marilyn Humphries, owner of Country Quilts 'n Bears, donated the fabric for the binding. Though Pittman volunteered to do the binding, she was minutes behind Sobel in doing so.

As Sobel arrived with the quilt, Pittman rushed to greet her. Within minutes they had it hanging on the wall of the shop for all to see and admire. "We have told the Byrd family that the quilt is theirs to do with as they please. Maybe they will use it as a wall hanging or a blanket ... or maybe they will donate it to their church for a fund-raiser," Pittman speculated, as the two women admired the workmanship in the queen-size covering.

For now, it is bound for California, to be returned to Greenberg. Sometime this summer, she will board a plane and head for Jasper to present the quilt to the Byrd family.

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