The fifth grade students of Newton Falls Middle School recently had a guest speaker to discuss the topic of the Underground Railroad.
Jean Watkins, was invited by Miss Megan Perrine to speak about this era of history and share her talents for quilting with her social studies classes.
Mrs. Jean Watkins has a background of arts and crafts and is the founder of J.W. Etc. She and her husband at the time made water-based varnish for the arts and crafts industry. Products such as Right Step and White Lightning were popular items in their line of business.
She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and her family moved to Newton Falls, Ohio when she was 12 years old. She attended the Newton Falls school system completing grades 6-9 and then completed her high school years at Linden Hall Academy in Lititz, Pennsylvania, where she graduated. This is the oldest school for girls in the country. She said those years were the best years of her life. She loved the history and the surroundings of Linden Hall and regrets not spending her adult life living in that community. From there, she attended Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio for one year and then ended up graduating from The Art Institute in Pittsburgh. She says she always has had “an artistic flare and seems to be hand-powered.”
Afterwards she moved to California with her husband. They lived in Thousand Oaks which is outside of Los Angeles and directly inland from Malibu. She had one son, who was killed in the army at 19 years of age. Later, she moved back to Pittsburgh and then moved back to Newton Falls where she currently resides.
Jean has always been particularly fond of the Civil War era, “an interesting period in history, but at the same time, a sad period” for the United States. Jean liked this time period for its fabric and materials that were used to make clothes and linens. Her quilts are a reproduction of the original fabrics. The first quilt she made was a twin flannel in 2001. She has made eight quilts total since she started sewing quilts.
Jean had sewn the freedom quilt she brought in for the class presentation back in 2010. Freedom quilts were one way that abolitionists used to help those using the Underground Railroad system. These quilts were maps or messages for slaves escaping to freedom. Abolitionists would air out their quilts by hanging them over balconies to help those heading towards freedom. Some houses of abolitionists were “stations” for runaway slaves to rest, eat and be given directions for the next part of their journey north to free states and even as far as Canada. Jean has been intrigued by how each square of these quilts denote a different message for those runaway slaves.
Mrs. Jean Watkins is available to speak at other schools and community functions. She may be reached at[email protected].or