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Collection Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996

Donna Choate

Donna Greer Choate was born on September 25, 1909, in Baywood (Grayson County), Virginia. Her parents were James and Lucinda Brown Greer, and her grandmother had been a slave. After the death of her mother, Lucinda Brown had been raised by a white family, who enabled her to attend school.

Detail of Sabe and Donna Choate standing in front of quilt draped on fence

The Greer children attended school through the seventh grade, but opportunities for further education for African-American children were limited. Other than her sisters and brothers, there were no other black children living in the area, Mrs. Choate recalled. In 1921, the family moved to Alleghany County, North Carolina, where Donna met Sabe Choate. After working on a dairy farm in Maryland from 1927 to 1933, Sabe Choate returned to Sparta and the two were married. Sabe Choate purchased land from his grandfather, Jeff Choate, a farmer and blacksmith, and built a house one or two rooms at a time. At the time of the interview in 1978, the Choates had one daughter, who was living in Chicago, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

As a child Donna Choate learned to make quilts from her mother. She first learned to piece by hand; later she did most of her piecing on the sewing machine. She and her mother used scraps left over from making clothing and occasionally recycled the remaining good parts of wool clothing. They recycled flour and feed sacks for linings, usually dyeing the white lining fabric with purchased dye so that it would not show dirt.

Block quilt

Mrs. Choate acquired some of her piecework patterns, including "Around the World," from white women she worked for. She also described a "Flower Basket" pattern that her mother had used. She often made quilts from whole cloth, sewing two lengths of uncut fabric together for the top and quilting it.

Donna Choate quilted alone, on a large frame resting on the backs of chairs in her living room. She recalled that her mother would sometimes have quiltings, inviting three or four women to help her quilt or tack one or two quilts in a day. Her mother often quilted in a "half moon" design, which, from her description, is similar to quilting in fans.

Quilted sheet, detail

Mrs. Choate recalled that she generally quilted during the wintertime, after Christmas. At the time of the interview, she had not made any quilts in several years. After making several quilts in one winter, she developed bursitis in her arm, which made quilting painful. Her house was warmer than in the past, so she and her husband did not need as many quilts at night. She had given many quilts to her daughter and grandchildren, keeping "just enough to cover the beds if I have company."

At the time of the interview, Donna Choate remarked that not many people she knew were making quilts anymore. "You hardly ever hear tell of anyone making a quilt."

by Laurel Horton, July 1999

Photographs and Sound Recordings Featuring Donna Choate