Joan Hodges, 81, is sewing a quilt that pays tribute to women, including those who played major roles in the fight for civil rights as well as unsung heroes. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

A Hempstead woman who uses history and her African American heritage as inspiration for her art is now stitching together a quilt honoring local women and other trailblazers who've played major roles in the fight for civil rights.

Joan Hodges, 81, who works with fabric to make quilts and dolls, also incorporates African motifs and patterns in her creations. Her latest quilt, which she started piecing together in December, began with the idea of exploring Black women in the civil rights movement.

The 54-by-60-inch quilt will feature more than 20 women "who have made a difference,” she told Newsday.

It will center on abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and guided others to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Tubman, who also served as a Union Army scout and spy during the Civil War and was a women’s suffrage advocate, is “my absolute favorite,” Hodges said. Among other notable women who could share space in Hodges’ handiwork are former first lady and women’s rights advocate Eleanor Roosevelt and former U.S. representative, lawyer and social activist Bella Abzug.

“All women have struggled,” Hodges said. “There are a lot of women of different races that have fought for civil rights.”

Hodges said she will also sew images of local women who have had an impact on her or on Hempstead, including Ora Kirkland, who taught Hodges to quilt after the two fortuitously met in a beauty parlor decades ago.

Hodges, who was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and moved to Long Island in the 1960s, grew up during segregation and a time when in some parts of the country attempts were still made to keep Black Americans from voting. She recalled seeing a photo of Emmett Till’s brutalized body in a magazine, an image that still haunts her today. When she visited her sister in Virginia, she was forced to use segregated water fountains and bathrooms.

Heritage and history feature prominently in Hodges’ body of work. Among them is a quilt depicting the formerly enslaved celebrating freedom through the Underground Railroad. As a precocious 5-year-old, she made her own Black dolls from newspapers and shoe polish because few were sold in stores.

“I didn’t see a whole lot of images of myself,” Hodges said. “So, I would make images of myself.”

The daughter of sharecroppers and the descendant of those enslaved, Hodges was active in the civil rights movement in her 20s. She participated in sit-ins and the 1963 March on Washington protest. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Lakeview in 1965 amid calls for better schools for Black children in the Malverne district, Hodges shook his hand.

“It’s like a feather in my cap,” she said.

Hodges is using a $10,000 New York State Council of the Arts grant awarded to Long Island Traditions, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving cultural customs and institutions, to fund her project, which she expects to complete by early fall. The quilt will be displayed throughout Long Island in museums and libraries. Four other Long Island Traditions artists also received grants.

Nancy Solomon, the executive director of Long Island Traditions, called Hodges, whom she has known since 1988, an “incredibly engaged artist" dedicated to sharing her skills with others.

“As an educator, she has taught hundreds of people either through the senior center or through libraries or through her church how to quilt and make dolls,” Solomon said.

A Hempstead woman who uses history and her African American heritage as inspiration for her art is now stitching together a quilt honoring local women and other trailblazers who've played major roles in the fight for civil rights.

Joan Hodges, 81, who works with fabric to make quilts and dolls, also incorporates African motifs and patterns in her creations. Her latest quilt, which she started piecing together in December, began with the idea of exploring Black women in the civil rights movement.

The 54-by-60-inch quilt will feature more than 20 women "who have made a difference,” she told Newsday.

It will center on abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and guided others to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Tubman, who also served as a Union Army scout and spy during the Civil War and was a women’s suffrage advocate, is “my absolute favorite,” Hodges said. Among other notable women who could share space in Hodges’ handiwork are former first lady and women’s rights advocate Eleanor Roosevelt and former U.S. representative, lawyer and social activist Bella Abzug.

“All women have struggled,” Hodges said. “There are a lot of women of different races that have fought for civil rights.”

Hodges said she will also sew images of local women who have had an impact on her or on Hempstead, including Ora Kirkland, who taught Hodges to quilt after the two fortuitously met in a beauty parlor decades ago.

Hodges, who was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and moved to Long Island in the 1960s, grew up during segregation and a time when in some parts of the country attempts were still made to keep Black Americans from voting. She recalled seeing a photo of Emmett Till’s brutalized body in a magazine, an image that still haunts her today. When she visited her sister in Virginia, she was forced to use segregated water fountains and bathrooms.

Heritage and history feature prominently in Hodges’ body of work. Among them is a quilt depicting the formerly enslaved celebrating freedom through the Underground Railroad. As a precocious 5-year-old, she made her own Black dolls from newspapers and shoe polish because few were sold in stores.

“I didn’t see a whole lot of images of myself,” Hodges said. “So, I would make images of myself.”

The daughter of sharecroppers and the descendant of those enslaved, Hodges was active in the civil rights movement in her 20s. She participated in sit-ins and the 1963 March on Washington protest. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Lakeview in 1965 amid calls for better schools for Black children in the Malverne district, Hodges shook his hand.

“It’s like a feather in my cap,” she said.

Hodges is using a $10,000 New York State Council of the Arts grant awarded to Long Island Traditions, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving cultural customs and institutions, to fund her project, which she expects to complete by early fall. The quilt will be displayed throughout Long Island in museums and libraries. Four other Long Island Traditions artists also received grants.

Nancy Solomon, the executive director of Long Island Traditions, called Hodges, whom she has known since 1988, an “incredibly engaged artist" dedicated to sharing her skills with others.

“As an educator, she has taught hundreds of people either through the senior center or through libraries or through her church how to quilt and make dolls,” Solomon said.

Joan Hodges' handiwork 

  • Joan Hodges explores her African American heritage through her work as an artist who works with fabric.
  • Her latest piece will feature women "who have made a difference" in her own life as well as nationally.
  • The quilt, which she expects to complete later this year, will feature the likes of Harriet Tubman. 
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