A modernistic quilt, made in the 30s by wives of men working on Wheeler Dam near Muscle Shoals, Ala., represents support and guidance of the African-American community by TVA.
Enter the west tower concourse of the TVA building in Knoxville, Tenn., and you’ll pass a striking piece of art: A quilt, quite modern in appearance, depicting a man in mid dance, clutching what appears to be a guitar in one hand and pointing toward the earth with another. You might think, as many employees and visitors do, that it’s a depiction of Elvis, perhaps made in the late 70s or early 80s after his death.
You’d be wrong.
Look more closely, and other details emerge. The man is surrounded by lush and plentiful vegetation. He’s being watched by another voluptuous figure to his right—face high in the sky. The sun is rising in full glory between his dancing legs, which stand on water. And one star-spangled arm is reaching into the quilt from the left-hand side, touching the man on the shoulder. Clearly, this isn’t Elvis, but some other blessed everyman.
What is this quilt?
It is a piece entitled “Uncle Sam’s Helping Hand,” designed in 1934 by Ruth Clement Bond and quilted by Rose Lee Cooper, whose husbands were then working on the construction at Wheeler Dam in Muscle Shoals, Ala. It has also come to be known as The TVA Quilt.
Ruth Bond, designer of the quilt, was the wife of Dr. J. Max Bond, the highest-ranking African-American officer at TVA at the time. Dr. Bond, a personnel officer, presented the quilt to TVA President Arthur E. Morgan in 1935, noting that quilting was one of several handicraft projects undertaken by Wheeler Dam wives:
“As you know, the wives of the workers in the Muscle Shoals area are organized into clubs, into what we call TVA clubs, seven in number. One of their projects is an attempt to revive the arts and crafts that were known to the Negro race during slavery. They further are attempting to use their handicraft to express the part that the Negro is playing in changing the South.”
Before she moved to the Shoals with her husband, Ruth Bond had grown up in urban areas, and had earned both a bachelors and masters degree in English from Northwestern University. She was fascinated by the handicrafts she was exposed to in the comparatively rural South, and inspired to combine tradition with the modernistic ideals of TVA.
The intention behind the work of The TVA Quilt was to depict both the African-American culture at that time, and the availability of support and guidance for that community through the Tennessee Valley Authority. “It has a hopeful message,” Bond once said of her work. “Things were getting better, and the black worker had a part in it.”
The vegetation and water on the quilt represent the natural beauty and abundance of the Shoals area surrounding Wheeler Dam, being developed then for uses such as energy production, soil conservation and natural preservation. Altogether, it is a surprisingly timely depiction of TVA’s focus even today on energy, environment and economic development.