Local College Honors Professor Whose Patchworks Were Masterworks
Tribeca’s Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) kicked off its observance of Black History Month on Wednesday by honoring the late Professor Edward M. Bostick (right), who taught English and linguistics at the school for almost half a century, before retiring in 2020 and passing away last year. But Professor Bostick’s academic career was only half of his story. He was also a leading—and self-taught—practitioner of the folk art of quilt making.
In the United States, a long tradition of African-American quilting dates to enslaved people who pieced together and sewed quilts in the antebellum South, and developed the art in the century and a half that followed the Civil War.
A native of Beaufort, South Carolina, Professor Bostick was an inheritor of this legacy, born into a family that had been quilt makers for generations. He recalled for a BMCC oral history in 2006 that when he was a child, “my grandmother Ollie, she’d make me thread the needle. In the wintertime, women would go around and make quilts for all the families in the area. They’d go with their daughters, but sometimes, the men helped too. But the men rarely got any credit.”
He was inspired to take up the craft when an aunt who had passed away left him a plaid-scrap quilt, which he cherished. When it began to fray, he decided to recreate it. The young man went to a Sears department store to purchase his first sewing machine, where he felt compelled to give the salesman a cover story, recalling that, “I said it was for my mother.”
This dynamic continued in later life, Professor Bostick noted, reflecting that, “my brother still thinks I’m absolutely crazy and unmanly. I’ve told him it’s not that different from what he does as a carpenter. I work with my hands, he works with his hands.” He added that, “African-American men have worked as successful tailors throughout history, so I don’t understand how more people don’t make the connection between tailoring and quilting. But it’s unfortunate, because quilting is becoming a dying art with Afro-Americans.”
Using bags of scrap fabric, he would position bright colors and geometric patterns into striking tableaux, often emblazoned with faces of iconic African-American leaders, and then stitch the layers together in decorative designs. He also collaborated with renowned artists, such as Sherry Shiny. Another partner was BMCC colleague and artist Vinton Melbourne, who recalled on Wednesday that “Professor Bostick was, among other things, an educator, a mentor, and a quilter. He and I worked hand in glove to blend painting and quilting to showcase historical African-American portraits in quilt form and to reveal and maintain an art form that relates to the cultural legacy of famous African Americans. Not just cultural and political figures, but scientists, writers and everyday people who made a difference.”
Over the course of decades of quilting, Professor Bostick developed a national reputation and an international following, with his work displayed in galleries and shows around the United States, and much prized by collectors.
BMCC president Anthony E. Munroe said that the college’s Afrikan Heritage Month celebrates “not only the strength, determination, and resilience of peoples of African descent and African diaspora, but the richness, depth, and diversity of our contributions to this world, this nation, to this community and to this college. This is a chance for us to learn about and experience the many contributions of Black people, including our colleagues and peers, that are often overlooked, under-acknowledged, under-appreciated, and forgotten, and often pushed to the side and ignored.”
For the month of February, dozens of quilts fashioned by Professor Bostick are hanging from the ceiling and on the walls of BMCC’s entrance hall (199 Chambers Street). Many were created in partnership with Mr. Melbourne, who recalls, “with a picture in hand, I’d paint the image for the quilt. He quilted them after I painted them. What you see on this wall is part of what we created together.”