BY MEL LEE-SMITH

“Is your work speakin’ for ya?” This is a question Reverend David Kennedy — President of The Echo Project and pastor of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church — routinely asks his congregation. And it’s also a question Moroccan-born quilter Torreah “Cookie” Washington’s work can answer with a loud and proud “yes.”

Meet Cookie Washington, one of South Carolina’s pioneering forces of social equity through art

With four generations of needle workers and over half a century of quilting experience behind her, Ms. Washington is a prolific quilter, racial justice activist, and self-described “child of the Movement.”

“Though I was only 8 when Dr. King was murdered, my mother's family was very active in the Civil Rights Movement,” said Ms. Washington. “The first March I ever attended was the Poor People's March on Washington where Dr. King gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I was three years old, my mother told me.”

Less than a year later, at the tender age of four, Ms. Washington would design the first textile she ever sold — a Barbie doll dress for which she received 50¢ from her granddaddy.

When asked how soon after her first “sale” she decided to turn her needleworking talents into a driving force for social good, Ms. Washington remarked, “Making tee shirts to sell to raise money for actions or bail money was something that we just did when we were home for summers. When I started quilting full-time, I felt a responsibility to tell stories that would raise awareness about the lives of my people.”

It’s a responsibility Ms. Washington has taken seriously since. She recently hosted a quilting bee at McLeod Plantation in Charleston. When asked what she felt her participants took away from that experience, Ms. Washington called the event “enlightening.”

“I felt that the participants of the Quilting Bee became more aware that everything that was used on the plantation was created there. The cotton was grown there and it was woven into fabrics and then all textile items were created by the enslaved, while also having to do other ‘chores.’”

Many of the guests were white and brought with them both questions about and expectations of the work of African American women quilters. “Many of them expected us to all quilt in the rag or scrap style like the famous quilters of Gees Bend create. So being able to share photos and examples of our art quilts was enlightening them.”

The candid conversations that took place at Ms. Washington’s quilting bee exemplify the type of reconciliation The Echo Project aims to achieve through education and community-driven connection. To quote Rev. Kennedy, “We have to find a way to talk about our differences.” It’s clear Ms. Washington has found a suitable way to do that using her inherited and hard-won artistic talents.

On how racism permeates through even peaceful activities such as quilting

"Foolishly, I did not anticipate racism in the realm of the quilting communities,” replied Cookie when we asked her what unexpected challenges she’s encountered throughout her career.

“I entered a Quilt Guild exhibit in 2004. The quilt was of the Black Madonna and Holy Child, and even though it won a ribbon, it was hung in front of the garbage room and intentionally damaged. Several of the staff of the show knew who had damaged my quilt; no one was ever held accountable.”

We are grateful to Ms. Washington for opening up to us about this experience. Her story is a prime example of the oral histories The Echo Project aims to preserve and amplify.

It’s also one our founders can empathize with. At our marquee lighting event in May 2021, Rev. Kennedy told the story of how his church, New Beginning Missionary Baptist, caught fire in 2015.

“No news stations, nobody carried the story. We can’t tell you how it caught on fire. There was no media coverage.”

Just as Rev. Kennedy so often does, Ms. Washington also ended her recollection of the trauma she experienced on an optimistic note:

“That incident spurred me to create my own exhibitions, and I have now created more than 20 exhibits that are all centered around African American textile artists.”

“Envisioning a society free from the bondage of oppression” through art

One of the most impactful exhibits in Washington’s portfolio is the African American Fiber Art Exhibition.

Ms. Washington has been guest curator for this North Charleston Cultural Arts Festival exhibit for nearly two decades. The exhibition has grown so much that it’s currently booked two years in advance.

This year’s Fiber Art Exhibition — From Chaos to Beloved Community: Envisioning Social Justice — will open at North Charleston City Hall Gallery on May 4, 2022 and will remain on display until June 17. It will then travel to Brookgreen Gardens in Myrtle Beach, where it will remain until Thanksgiving. After that, the exhibit will go on tour throughout the South.

Entrants are tasked with creating a “piece that envisions a society free from the bondage of oppression.” The program description implores applicants to consider what our world might look like if everyone was granted access to wholesome food, clean water, and safe housing.

Ms. Washington also recently curated a separate exhibition, Griots of Cotton, Indigo, & Clay. The exhibit showcases selected earth-based works from the permanent collection of the Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund. This “nonprofit ecosystem” works to raise awareness of the plight of farmers impacted by the Pigford settlements and reverse the “steady erosion of the African American agricultural land base and intergenerational wealth.”

Griots of Cotton, Indigo, & Clay debuted at Charleston’s City Gallery at Waterfront Park in January. The exhibition will next travel to I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, where it will open on April 18, 2022.

Keeping the artform alive

Fledgling artists who hope to use their talents to contribute to the social justice movement need not look further for a role model than Ms. Washington. She was among 44 master quilters selected to create a quilt honoring President Obama’s inauguration as part of a Quilt Alliance project.

Her advice to young artists? Find a mentor. “Be bold and share your work. We more experienced artists are eager to help keep the artform alive.”


Our sincerest thanks to Ms. Washington for taking time out of her busy schedule to chat with us about her work. To see more of Ms. Washington’s art and upcoming events, visit her website at cookiesewsquilts.com.

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