The North Star inspires a group of local quilters.
By GAIL WHITE
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- For 10 years, the North Star Patchwork Training Center has been a resource for women searching for a new direction in life.
"Our goal is for women to become self-developed, self-reliant and self-sufficient," said the Rev. Lillie B. North, who founded the center, located at the Friends House Chapel on Hazeltine Avenue, after observing women in her community who were unable to support themselves.
Women entering the program receive 200 training hours where they focus on sewing skills and basic computer knowledge.
"We teach women how to do various types of arts and crafts that they can use to gain employment," the Rev. Ms. North said. "We try to encourage them to become entrepreneurs, starting cottage industry businesses from their homes."
Along with rag dolls, wreaths and wooden crafts that the women learn how to make during the program, Ms. North will often have the women learn quilting.
Underground Railroad Quilt
Last fall, under Ms. North's guidance and direction, participants at the North Star Patchwork Training Center began working on an Underground Railroad Quilt.
What the group learned as they did research for the quilt was that one of the main symbols for the slaves seeking freedom was none other than the North Star.
"The North Star was a guiding light for the slaves," said Mary Ann Stoltz of Youngstown, the main researcher for the project. "As they headed north to freedom, they followed that star."
To emphasize the importance of the North Star, the ladies quilted a large patchwork symbol of the star in the center of their Underground Railroad Quilt.
The border of the quilt is made up of patchwork designs significant to the slaves during their journey to freedom.
Signs and symbols
Based on the book "Hidden In Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad," Stoltz learned that signs and symbols sewn into quilts or other fabric and hung on clotheslines or simply drawn on the ground were helpful messages for the slaves.
"All of these patterns have a meaning for communicating where they were supposed to go," Stoltz said, pointing at the quilt.
"You have to remember," Ms. North says. "Many of the slaves did not speak English -- or not very well. Most of them couldn't read. That's why they used symbols to communicate."
Miriam DeLacruz, a quilter on the project, is working on a patchwork design consisting of triangular-shaped fabric, known as the flying geese to the slaves.
"When they saw this, they knew to prepare to go north," Stoltz said.
DeLacruz came to the training center two years ago. Most of what she learned at the center was reinforcement. She now uses her skills to help others.
"I like to work with teen-agers," DeLacruz said. She is reaching out to a young girl in need by making her baby clothes and blankets.
Stella Pittman is working on a quilt patch that consists of a simple square in the center.
"That is a symbol for a log cabin," Stoltz explained. Drawn in the dirt, the symbol represented at safe haven for slaves.
Like DeLacruz, Pittman came to the training center already knowing how to sew.
"I learned a lot of things I wasn't doing correctly," she laughs. Pittman is preparing for her first craft show where she will sell her homemade wares.
"I don't think I would have done it without North Star," she says of the training center. "It changed my life. I know it did."
Wisdom behind patches
The quilt contains many other patches representing messages to the slaves. Two triangle shapes in the form of a bow-tie told the slaves to dress like they belonged in the community through which they were traveling. A zig-zagging crossroad of fabric, known as the drunkard's path, informed the slaves not to take a straight route ahead.
"The wisdom behind it all," said Doris Neal, secretary at the training center.
Watching the women of the center working on the quilt, Stoltz explained, "This quilt is a work of love and a work of honor to those who traveled the Underground Railroad and to those who helped them on their way."
"This area is rich with Underground Railroad history -- actual places where the slaves stayed," Ms. North said. She shared the Valley's connection to the training center's most recent work -- with a hand outstretched, pointing to the North Star on the quilt, she said, "This is history."
While the women of the training center diligently sew the patches surrounding the North Star on the Underground Railroad Quilt to preserve the history of the slave's journey to freedom, they are preparing for their own journey into the future -- guided, as well, to the north -- by North and the North Star Patchwork Training Center.