If Da Dirt Could Talk
This project is designed to interpret the lives of former enslaved Africans who built Quindaro, an African American, post-Civil War community in Kansas City, KS. Nedra Bonds and Nancy Dawson, both natives of Quindaro, will develop a series of history-related quilts with local school children and engage audiences around issues of environmental justice. They will also perform and present an original play, entitled Stories From da Dirt, in the Old Quindaro Cemetery – where the author’s runaway slave grandmother is buried.
The relationship between Bonds, a fiber artist, and Dawson, professor, playwright and performing artist, began in 1983, when the two first met in an organizing meeting to curtail efforts of Browning Ferris Industries, (a landfill company) who planned to destroy the Old Quindaro Cemetery. This historic cemetery houses the remains of the original families who came to Old Quindaro during the enslavement, in search of their freedom. Organizing that took place over several years eventually saved the cemetery and curtailed the landfill. During this time, Bonds constructed a quilt for the children at Quindaro Elementary School, to teach them about the African American history in the area. Joan Finney, then Kansas Governor, signed a bill into law to forbid landfills on all navigable streams in Kansas. The quilt was used as the backdrop of the bill’s signing – thus launching her fiber art career.
Dawson, on the other hand, was in the 6th grade at Quindaro Elementary school when she first learned how her enslaved great grandmother, Elizabeth Thompson, escaped from Liberty, Missouri. The would-be playwright, then presented her relative’s story to the entire six grade class. Thompson was dashed in the head with a pair of scissors when she was 12 years old because she refused to deliver her mistress’ baby. She then escaped to Quindaro in 1862 by crossing the Missouri River when it was frozen. Dawson’s fascination with history led her to a career in African American Studies, and she became a university professor and later creator of her own professional theatrical group, Music is Spirit. Dawson’s play, Stories From da Dirt (a tribute to Thompson) has been presented throughout the United States, and the play is officially recognized by the National Park Service, Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
This project will help the Old Quindaro community and the Greater Kansas City area celebrate its cultural history with future generations, in a manner that is educational, culturally-centered and entertaining. In addition, it will serve as a model for other communities across America who are working to resurrect and preserve their history, while organizing to prevent the destruction of the environment.
The artists will stage two productions of the play Stories From da Dirt in the Old Quindaro Cemetery. The first production will be for area youth and the second production will be for general audiences. They will also conduct quilting/cultural workshops and environmental workshops with students at Quindaro Elementary School and within the Old Quindaro area. The quilts created at the workshops, and by Bonds and Dawson, will both help to promote the production of the play and be utilized in the cemetery during the performances.
Nedra Bonds was born in Kansas City, Kansas to a family of quilters, and was taught basic quilt techniques as a child. She began serious quilting with the Quindaro Quilt, which was made to present images of this pre-civil war town, when the land was threatened by a landfill. Nedra was appointed to the Kansas Arts Commission by governor Joan Finney, in 1992, and as a result of her involvement with the Quindaro environmental justice issue, she was chosen to be a delegate to the United Nations’ Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, in the same year.
In 1994, Nedra was asked to teach quilting to a group of women in Nairobi, Kenya which subsequently led to a visit to Arusha, Tanzania. She then returned to Arusha in 2004 to teach quilting for an exhibition. She participated in Fiber Focus, St. Louis in 2007, where she received an award for imagery, and in 2008, she was asked to present about African American quilting in an American Studies Association conference, in Istanbul, Turkey. In 2009 Nedra was asked to visit with local women in Port au Prince, Haiti where she taught quilting techniques, and in 2011 she was awarded an Arts KC inspiration grant to create a community quilt for the UMKC Women’s Center. The quilt was unveiled at the Kauffman Center for performing arts, in Nov 2011.
Dr. Nancy J. Dawson has been a professor of African American Studies at various colleges and universities across the country. Her co-edited work, the Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia, was released by Greenwood Press in 2010. She is a playwright, quilt artist and performer. Dr. Dawson has worked with both Fort Donelson National Battlefield and the New Orleans National Jazz Historical Park in the development of projects related to the Underground Railroad. Her first production of Stories From da Dirt, is included in the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Currently she is the Artistic Director of Music is Spirit an African American Female-Centered Theatre Company.