Black Joy

A Black historian creates community in Quilt City one stitch at a time

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In 2019, when I started my job as a professor in Paducah, KY, I quickly learned I was the first Black person to teach history courses at my institution. My students did not mind sharing that I was their first Black woman professor, or teacher of any sort, for that matter. I could not believe it but when I looked around, I had no choice but to face reality.

In every city I have lived in, I have been drawn to the stories of Black people who survived, sacrificed and trail blazed during times of hardship.

—  Stacey Watson

Before arriving in Paducah, I lived in Atlanta. Before Atlanta, Nashville. And before Nashville, my hometown Southfield, just a stone’s throw from Detroit. In every city I have lived in, I have been drawn to the stories of Black people who survived, sacrificed and trail blazed during times of hardship.

To me, Detroit was hardly just its history as “Motown.” It was more of a community of safe stops along the Underground Railroad. Nashville, although known as “Music City” to most, I know it best as being where Diane Nash, a Black woman, organized the Selma to Montgomery march. And while Atlanta is widely recognized as the cornerstone city of the Civil Rights Movement, I appreciate it for its historic Auburn Avenue, once referred to as “the richest Negro street in the World,” by Time-Life editor Emmet John Hughes due to the success of its Black businesses.

When I moved to Paducah, I learned about the National Quilt Museum and discovered the city was home to Dippin’ Dots “Ice Cream of the Future,” but I had no idea what the city’s Black history entailed. I’d known I was moving to a predominantly white city, and I did what I always do when entering these spaces: check the temperature. Upon my arrival the temperature was freezing, and I felt isolated, stranded.

I questioned where the local Black people were and how I might get an invitation to their whereabouts. Every day I was in pursuit to find something that felt like home. I hoped even to just be seen by another Black person, and we would connect with a simple head nod.

Then, it happened.

While searching for a beauty supply store and a soul food restaurant — simple necessities I’d clearly taken for granted in other cities — I came across the Hotel Metropolitan. There was a sign that read “African American Heritage Museum” in the yard. That sign was my invitation to stop in. I was greeted by the best words you could hear from a stranger who looks like you, “Come on in, baby. Sit down and make yourself at home.” This was quickly followed by, “Are you hungry? Would you like some fried fish?”

Mrs. Betty Dobson, the hotel director, educated me about the history of Black Paducah. She told me about a time when Paducah was booming with Black businesses. She informed me that the very school I worked at, known then as West Kentucky Industrial College, was founded in 1909 by Dennis Henry Anderson, a Black man. It was a school built by Black people for Black people. The same year Anderson constructed the college, Hotel Metropolitan opened its doors to Black travelers. With the help of the Green Book, known as the “Black traveler’s Bible,” Black icons including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Ella Fitzgerald, Thurgood Marshall and numerous players from the Negro Baseball League were informed of and invited to stay at the Hotel Metropolitan.

The Green Book served as a directory, keeping Black travelers out of harm’s way during times of unrest and racial tension. I can only imagine what these travelers felt when they arrived at the Hotel Metropolitan, perhaps it was the same feeling I had when I first walked in; welcomed, warm. I left completely full.

Then it came back: the chill.

It is hard to describe the very moment you realize you’re the only Black person in a space. I make the decision to stay or flee in milliseconds.

—  Stacey Watson

I remember walking into Paducah’s crown jewel, the National Quilt Museum in May of 2021, to volunteer. I sat down with the staff to discuss my past museum experience. Although I was eager to work among museum professionals again, I struggled with not seeing anyone that looked like me. When I toured the galleries, I did not see one Black person. It is hard to describe the very moment you realize you’re the only Black person in a space. I make the decision to stay or flee in milliseconds.

At the museum, I checked the temperature. It was resting between frigid and unsettling. It felt sterile as if I was standing in a hospital hallway. I left questioning whether or not I was still interested. If I worked here, would I be considered a diversity hire, simply put in place to check off boxes? Will this be a safe space? Did I want to work a second job in addition to being a full-time professor?

I made the decision to stop checking the temperature and change it. I first had to figure out how to make the museum warm for not only me but people who look like me.

—  Stacey Watson

Then without further thought, I made the decision to stop checking the temperature and change it. I first had to figure out how to make the museum warm for not only me but people who look like me. When I became the Director of Equitable Partnerships at the National Quilt Museum in August of 2021, I was transparent about my goal to unite the museum with the local community.

My first event was in November, I assisted in the planning of an artist reception for Valerie White, a Black quilt artist who is now a museum Board member. Then shortly thereafter in February 2022, I focused on establishing a space in the museum for the community to share the stories of Black Paducah.

I felt the temperature rising, until a couple months later in April when I attended Paducah’s most popular event, the Quilt Show. For four days, the city is taken over by thousands of quilters and spectators from all over the world who admire hundreds of prize winning quilts. People marvel at the intricate details hand stitched by those who’ve put years of love into their works of art. You can find attendees pointing at themed quilts displaying timeless moments and portraits of recognizable faces.

I had heard so much about this national competition, I could not wait to attend. And then I did: I was the only Black person in the entire convention center. It was so cold, I quickly left. I knew if I had left, there were others who had also left and probably would never return. Where would those who left go and how could I help? Fortunately, Mrs. Dobson offered the Hotel Metropolitan to serve as what it always has been, a place of refuge. I knew in my role at the museum, this year the hotel could not be the only place Black quilters received a warm welcome in Quilt City.

The beauty of being the only Black person in a white space is seeing what others do not see and providing what is needed. It is my lack of privilege that highlights what should and can be done in these spaces. After my experience during Quilt Week, I shifted my energy to serve as a curator at the museum. I used the space to display quilts focused on social injustice to educate visitors on topics overlooked. And I wanted to provide Black quilters an opportunity to be seen, included, respected and appreciated. As a director and a curator, I felt the cold lift, the space became warmer.

I am not only a bridge between the museum, the community and the Quilt Show, but I’m also a place in the Green Book.

—  Stacey Watson

I realized in this space I had to be the face people needed to see, the one I was looking for when I moved here. I would provide the head nod, hug, smile, and the personal invitations. I am not only a bridge between the museum, the community and the Quilt Show, but I’m also a place in the Green Book.

Being the first or only can be exhausting but I am moved by those who came before me. They created opportunities for others and I too am doing the same. I feel motivated to continue to be a change agent for the community and increase the feeling of belonging in the spaces I occupy. This is my purpose and I feel protected by my ancestors who remind me to remain focused on the plan of uplifting ourselves. I am fulfilling my purpose, and this is what brings me joy, Black joy.

The Reckon Report.
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