Major Collections

The Robert and Helen Cargo Collection of African-American Quilts

The Robert and Helen Cargo Collection of African-American Quilts

To view quilts from the Cargo collection go to Search the Collections, scroll down to the IQSC Collection field and select "Robert and Helen Cargo Collection" from the drop-down box.

The Robert and Helen Cargo Collection of African-American quilts, given to the International Quilt Study Center in May, 2000, in part by the Cargos and in part by Robert and Ardis James, encompasses 156 quilts made by African American women primarily from Alabama. More than 32 quilt makers are represented in the collection, including folk artists Nora Ezell, Mary Lucas, Mary Maxtion and Yvonne Wells.

The quilts typically date from the fourth quarter of the 20th century, but also include a number of significant pre-1950 works. Many were purchased directly from the makers, some of whom Dr. Cargo came to know well as he visited and photographed them at work in their homes.

IQSC Director Dr. Patricia Crews commented, "This exceptional collection adds a new facet of American quilt history to the IQSC's world-class James Collection. The Cargo Collection superbly illustrates the ongoing role that African American quilt makers play in the larger tradition of American quilt history."

Robert Cargo, professor emeritus of the University of Alabama and owner of the Folk Art Gallery in Tuscaloosa, began building his collection of Alabama quilts in the late 1950s after inheriting a number of quilts from his great-grandmother. He decided early to focus his efforts primarily on Alabama quilts and assembled a collection that became widely regarded as one of the most important quilt collections in the United States. Since 1980, Cargo has concentrated more on African American quilts from Alabama with a few examples from several other states of the Deep South. "As a group, these quilts have the qualities that excite me as I grow older - bold, eccentric, idiosyncratic, improvisational, brightly colored," he said.

Selected quilts from this collection have been exhibited at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, The National Humanities Center in North Carolina and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and are featured in a number of publications including "Quilts: A Living Tradition" by Robert Shaw.

Download an article written by Dr. Cargo: "African American Quilts of Alabama: Flowers without Roots?".