by Lee Pierre
Living in Stafford, VA, and commuting through the DC traffic daily was hectic and stressful. Roy Mitchell Jr. needed a break. In 1990, he and a friend, Faith Smith, decided to take a weekend trip to the Virginia State Fair in Manassas. Once there, they happened upon a display of quilts. Roy says they were beautiful quilts similar to those he had slept under as a child. His friend wanted to purchase one. He was against it because of the price.
“I couldn’t appreciate the price because I didn’t understand the details or the thought, the work, or anything that went into it. It was just something to keep you warm,” Roy said proudly, “I told her I could make this.” Faith held him to his word, so he decided to take a quilting class.
At the Stafford Gift Shop quilting class, Roy was not just the only man; he was the only African American as well. The women were receptive to him and helped him get caught up to where they were. Classes met weekly starting with basic blocks, then a Nine Patch and Bears Claw. The gift shop closed, and the class ended however Roy says he continued working on quilts creating a Double Wedding Ring queen-size quilt. When his son was born in 1992, he slowed down however would still sew squares to keep in practice but never completed anything. Because of his true passion for quilting, he started back in 2004. He wanted to create something unique. While sitting in his kitchen surrounded by all of his Black memorabilia, he came up with a unique idea.
“I should make something with people eating watermelon,” he said. Watermelon has always been negatively linked to black culture. What many have seen as a negative link is really a powerful link to life, strength, and survival. Watermelons are native to the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa. The watermelon like Black people is strong, durable, and versatile. “I want to show this positive link between my African American culture and watermelon. I am proud of my heritage, and I want to acknowledge it and share it with others by giving birth to the Watermel’un Babies.”
He had an artist who worked with him and together they just started creating characters. Viola Williams Canady, founder, and president of “Daughters of Dorcas and Sons,” taught him how to do couching, a technique in which yarn or other materials are laid across the surface of the ground fabric and fastened in place with small stitches of the same or a different yarn. The couching threads may be either the same color as the laid threads or contrasting color. It can be confused with using an applique however Roy’s first watermelon quilt is all hand-couching same as with the quilt that appeared in the National Quilters Association show.
Roy stated that every time he encountered Ms. Canady, she encouraged him to continue with his work, informing him that he needed to stay true to himself because bigger and better things were in store for him. At that time, he couldn’t understand why or how yet he heeded her words and continued. “I had taught my son quilting and he used it for a school contest. He created a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado out of fabric and won first place.”
Being part of the “Daughters of Dorcas and Sons” was rewarding however Roy wanted to do something to get more males involved. He spoke with Ms. Canady, and she told him what he needed to do to get started. His group originally was him, his son, Tre; his father, Roy Mitchell Sr., and two other men. The group now has eight members who meet monthly unless they are working on a major project. His group, the Kings of Quilts, did a mentoring project with the Prince William County school system and taught 40 male students how to quilt.
In 2013, Roy established the First Quilting Class with Virginia Department Juvenile Justice Yvonne B. Miller High School on the campus of the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. When he first suggested the idea, he was told that ‘the thugs’ wouldn’t want to learn anything. He held fast to his dream, as Ms. Canady had told him and not only has the class been a success, but he also relishes the fact that he has never had a behavior issue in his class. He has a sign at the door that states: “Believe that you’re somebody! It is not what you did, it is what you want to do and it’s not what you’ve been, it is where you’re going. Leave someone outside of the classroom and somebody inside because it’s someone who did the crime to get in prison; it takes that somebody who has been changed and reformed to walk out of here.” The boys not only learn quilting, but they are also learning how to do upholstery and draperies. They are getting skills they can take out into the real world and use.
During the pandemic, Roy created 550 protective masks for his fellow staff members and residents at Bon Air, as well as for some local hospitals and other community members in need. In addition to Bon Air staff, he has donated masks to hospitals, several assisted living facilities, and 75 to senior citizens who live on the block of Moorman Road in Roanoke where he grew up.
Roy grew up in Roanoke, attended Melrose Elementary, Monroe Junior High, and graduated from William Fleming High School. He furthered his education at Livingstone College, Salisbury, NC, and graduated in 1980.
Roy has been honored and has received a plethora of accomplishments as in 2008, being the first black man to ever be featured as a quilter in the National Quilting Association magazine, REB Teaching Excellence Award, acknowledgment from Sen. Mark Warner, publication in numerous magazines as well as several exhibits. He was a guest for the African American Quilt Guild in Flint, Michigan two consecutive years. On his second visit, he had a quilt that lit up.
He created a quilt for Livingstone College, his alma mater, depicting all the presidents of the school. The juveniles he works with created a special quilt for Virginia commemorating the governors of Virginia. The boys traveled to Winston Salem, NC December 2015 to show off their skills. It was the first time for many of them to have ever crossed the state line. He has taken his juvenile class on trips to exhibitions to display their quilts and for some of the boys, it was the first time they had ever worn a suit, tie, and dress shoes. Roy furnishes this for all the boys in the program at his own expense. “I would hate for the first time that one of these guys wears a suit is when he is lying in his coffin,” Roy stated as the reason for him purchasing the items.
His next project is far-reaching. He has become intrigued by the making of Kente (a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips and is native to the Akan tribe in Ghana). Someone nominated him for a teaching award that required Roy to create a proposal on what he would do if he were awarded $12,000. Though he felt he had no chance of winning considering he was competing with 118 teachers of English, math, and other subjects. Ms. Canady’s words came back, and he wrote the proposal on his vision of going to Ghana, West Africa to learn how to weave Kente. His reasons were to help with the crime in the area by giving the young men something tangible. “You can stop a lot of crime if you teach them to use their minds. The mind is the thing to capture,” Mitchell said. He was informed that only 19 people would be selected. When he got the call that he won, he was shocked.
His plan is to go learn how to do the weaving. He has already been there six times and has selected the fabrics that are in his quilts. I’m going to go there and work under a weaving person in Kumasi and stay for about a month to learn all of it.
In the meantime, he’s working on a quilt called Sunday Sisters featuring Black women in their church hats. In 2023, he’s considering selling some of his pieces. He quips about how he is running out of room for all the work he has completed. The pieces the boys make travel. They have been in the Mid-Atlantic Quilt Festival, which is one of the largest quilt shows, having over 40,000 people come over a four-day period. The boys actually go to the show at the Hampton Coliseum with their work and had traveled to Roanoke to present a show at the Harrison Museum as well. He hopes to return to Roanoke to gather information to create a quilt commemorating the Gainsboro and “the Yard” neighborhoods.
In parting, he wants to leave a message: “There is no such job as a woman’s job or a man’s job anymore. Everything is a job and there is no profession that women don’t do, or men don’t do.
Follow your dream. Remember you are recognized by your own success and not that of man! I want my African American brothers and sisters to be proud of who we are as African Americans and the accomplishments we have made as African American people.”
Roy remains enthusiastic about his past, current, and future ventures as well as the inspiration and hope they have brought those around him. As Ms. Canady predicted during their earlier meetings, he is destined for greater things.