In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Reverend Mark Koyama knew he had to do something to help his community heal. Turning to what were among Floyd’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” Rev. Koyoma found a way to do that.

As minister of the United Church of Jaffrey in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, Rev. Koyama encouraged congregants across the state to take George Floyd’s words — which had become a rallying cry for racial and social justice — and incorporate them in the design and making of quilts.

That endeavor is now known as the Sacred Ally Quilt Ministry, and their quilts — all 11 of them — are part of a traveling exhibition coming to Boston next week, on view at the Congregational Library & Archives.

This is a photograph of a quilt, made of green, yellow and red squares of fabric. In the middle of the quilt is a black star. The words "I didn't do nothing serious man. Please, please, I can't breath."  are printed on the top of the quilt. On the lower part of the quilt are the words "Please man, please somebody, please man, I can't breathe."
St. Paul's School, The Sacred Ally Quilt Project.
Michael Seamans St. Paul's School/Michael Seamans

Dr. Kyle Roberts, executive director of the Congregational Library & Archives, said the quilts make for a soul-stirring display, representing the tragic last moments of Floyd’s life.

“I think there's ways that we might think of quilts as these sort of comforting pieces,” he said, “but they're also challenging, what does it mean to have something that gives you comfort, that's designed to give you comfort, you know, to keep you warm, yet at the same time has the words of a dying man on them? I think that that challenge will really come out in the quilts when you see them.”

Roberts also wants people to consider Geroge Floyd’s death as it relates to other social movements.

The quilts will be accompanied by materials which include texts from Frederick Douglass, poet Langston Hughes and the first female minister in the United States, Antoinette Brown Blackwell. These materials, which are from the archive’s collection, help to highlight the legacy of Black truth-speaking and the history of congregational women’s activism.

“Our hope is that somebody will come, they will see the quilts, and then they will come in and see this kind of exhibit that puts these relationships between Black voices and women's activism into a historic context,” Roberts said.

Context is also significant when it comes to the quilts. Roberts says it’s not just important to consider why they were made but where they were made.

“Some of the quilts were actually made in the churches themselves, in sight of the altar, and in sight of the cross, which I think is a really, really a powerful idea,” Roberts said. “We think that maybe this would be something made in somebody's craft room or their living room, but these are created in a church in a sacred space, I think really elevates and really imbues the message that these quilts have.”

Kathy Blair, who helped make the quilt for the United Church of Christ in Keene, New Hampshire, said in her artist statement that participating in the project was a “deeply moving experience.”

“From the beginning I felt it was important for youth from our church to participate,” she wrote. “Seven youth from five families assisted in cutting out the lettering on the quilt. My hope is that the desire to work for social justice takes hold and is nurtured in their hearts.”

This is a photograph of a quilt. It's black with nine grey horizontal lines . Written on the lines in orange lettering are the last words of George Floyd "I can't breathe. Please.Man can't breathe. My face. just get up.I can't breathe. please. I can't breathe s++t. I will. I can't move. Mama."
St. Paul's School, The Sacred Ally Quilt Project.
Michael Seamans St. Paul's School/Michael Seamans

On Juneteenth, the day the quilts arrive at the museum, there will be a conversation about the project’s origins with the leaders of the Sacred Ally Quilt Ministry — Koyama, Dr. Harriet Ward and Kathy Blair — moderated by Jennifer Swope, curator of textiles at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The quilts are on tour throughout the country to spark community conversation, Roberts said. After Boston, they will travel to Indianapolis.

“People can come together and say, what is this about? How do we feel about this? What does it mean to have this horrific act represented in this mode? What would we do in our community if this had happened?” Roberts said.

The quilts will be on display in the Congregational Library & Archives at 14 Beacon St., and free tickets are limited to 25 people an hour so there is space to take in the pieces.

Updated: April 03, 2024
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