Race to Freedom Exhibit Features Quilt Celebrating World Games Sports « The Official Website for the City of Birmingham, Alabama

By Chanda Temple

When news started to spread about the World Games in Birmingham, Theresa McGhee Johnson wondered how she could show her enthusiasm to others.

So she did what she does best: she made a quilt.

The Birmingham native started the quilt in April 2022 and finished it at the end of June. In early July, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute included her quilt in its “Race to Freedom” exhibit, which will end on July 16. The gallery focuses on running in sports and includes historic pieces such as the Atlanta 1996 Olympic torch, cereal boxes with African American Olympians on them, notable memorabilia from Muhammad Ali, Hank Arron, and more.

Johnson’s quilt features 40 different sports from the World Games. She drew each image in her composition pad, made the patterns, ironed the patterns onto the quilt, and hand-stitched around each figure so they would stay in place. At the top of the quilt is a banner filled with his hand-stitched images of popular Birmingham landmarks including Sloss Furnaces, Citizens Bank founded by AG Gaston and Vulcan. It also sports the colors of the World Games.

“The quilt represents Birmingham, to me,” Johnson, 69, said. “I felt great from start to finish working on it. It was awesome.”

Her favorite square is the breakdancing square because she remembers her children breaking dancing in the garden when they were younger. She also loves the wheelchair rugby square. Some figures, such as sumo wrestlers and flag football, challenged her to create because she wanted the image to be perfect. But when she got stuck, she just closed her eyes and thought about how they moved during their workout.

When she returned to work, she managed to capture the movement of the sport.

“My family gave me time each night to take my nap and then get up at 7 a.m. and work on it,” she said. “My energies were ready to start flowing. My friends were thrilled to know that I created a part of Birmingham, AL history.”

A friend of hers, Dee Walker, stepped in to help Johnson create embroidered labels for each quilt square to show the name of the sport. Walker made the labels and Johnson sewed them onto the squares.

While making the quilt, Johnson often thought about how she used to watch the Olympics with her grandmother, who taught her how to quilt when she was 9 years old. And now, to still be able to use those skills on a project she created to showcase Birmingham. and the World Games are very special.

“Quilting is therapeutic. It’s so calming. It’s what I teach and it’s what I live,” said Johnson, who is the executive director of the United Community Center in Riley. She teaches free quilting classes Mondays from 2-5 p.m. at the center, located at 3617 Hickory Ave.

The “Race to Freedom” exhibit represents the marathon of progress and provides a historical perspective of African-American athletes and the challenges they faced early in their professional careers. Doors open at 10 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. for this exhibit. Last admission to the exhibit will be at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children. Go here for more information. To see a video of the exhibition, go here.

BCRI will also host STEAM Sporting on Saturday July 16th. For more information on these events and more, visit www.bcri.org.

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