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Sheryl Sims’ journey of family history and art

by Karen Hansen-Kuhn

Each of our stories illustrates our lives. For many of us, those stories begin with our childhood. Sheryl Sims, a longtime friend of Alexandria Monthly Meeting at Woodlawn (AMM), dug much deeper to trace her heritage back to the Revolutionary War. In the process, she found a broad community of friends and relatives and uncovered a proud but sometimes painful history of perseverance, family and beauty. She tells those stories through art quilts, some of which are on display at Woodlawn mansion in Alexandria, Virginia through December 31.

Sheryl Sims and her daughter Amber Wihshi

At a recent talk at Woodlawn, Sheryl discussed her journey to discover her roots. She traced her family history back to Andrew Cox (her 6th great grandfather), who provided funding and supplies to Patriot soldiers in the Revolutionary War. As she learned of those connections through records searches and other genealogical research, she came into contact with distant relatives, in some cases 4th cousins who shared a common ancestor. Some of those discoveries were happy ones, with family reunions that welcomed her with open arms.

Others were more painful. Their common ancestor was Calvin Leary, a slaveholder, who had a daughter by Mariah, an enslaved woman who worked as a cook on his plantation. As Sheryl proceeded with the research to support her application to the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she encountered other obstacles stemming from that history. Enslaved families were often split up and scattered across the country, and records were sparse. Sheryl commented that they were treated, “like pieces of furniture being bought and sold.” Still, based on the meticulous research conducted by Charlotte Brown, Martha Catlin, Dayle Sayers – a NSDAR lineage expert, and Sheryl, her application was eventually accepted, and she continues to meet with new friends and distant relatives in the Society. They celebrate with Sheryl, her long journey researching her family roots that ultimately revealed that she is a 4th great granddaughter of Leary and Sheryl’s enslaved ancestor, Mariah.

She also uncovered connections to Alexandria Monthly Meeting of Woodlawn. Martha Claire Catlin, AMM’s historian, explains:

Sheryl Sims discovered connections with Woodlawn Quaker families when it came to light that some of the Woodlawn settlers were related to descendants of the early Hollingsworths. These lines represent the continuation of Quaker roots through multiple generations, unlike Sheryl’s slaveholding ancestor, Calvin Leary. Leary was the great grandson of James Valentine Hollingsworth (1724-1782). Our records show that Hollingsworth descendants formed an important part of the Woodlawn community as a result of intermarriage with a founding family of the Woodlawn Meeting. These pre-Civil War settlers were Quakers from northern states who established an antislavery colony to demonstrate to the local community – and to slaveholders throughout the South – that agriculture could be profitable without the use of slave labor. The Quakers purchased plantation lands from slaveholders and divided the acreage into small owner-occupied family farms. On this model, the Woodlawn plantation, where the Quakers’ meetinghouse was built – and thousands of acres of plantation lands nearby – were transformed into a thriving agricultural community of Quaker and free Black families.

Along the way, Sheryl’s genealogical research merged with another passion – quilt making. She began to tell the stories of her family history through her art. Through her participation in a local quilting guild, she learned about freeform art quilting. In her artist’s statement for the exhibit at Woodlawn, she writes:

I began making quilts several years ago while conducting genealogical research needed to join a lineage society (NSDAR) I want my family members to know our family history.

While I appreciate traditional quilts, smaller, wall-hangings-sized quilts are more my style. I employ raw edge applique and machine stitching.

Several areas touch my soul — faith, family and history. Faith is important. During times of joy, grief, political unrest, etc., faith sustains me. The same held true for my ancestors, both free and enslaved.

My process is simple. I quilt what is on my heart and mind. Inspiration comes from everywhere. My quilts are whimsical, serious, and sometimes painful. They are quilted snapshots in time. I visualize a subject and make a small sketch or simply start cutting and laying it out. Typically, I complete a quilt in a day — 4-8 hours. I challenge myself to use what I have in my fabric stash and from fabrics given to me by generous guild members. I “paint with fabric.”

Quilts tell stories, provide warmth, and lead people to freedom. It might be freedom of expression or freedom to live safely. In my world, quilts will always have something important to say.

The quilts help to tell those stories. She does not sell her personal story quilts. They are to be her legacy to her daughter Amber Wihshi. In addition to the inspiration of history, she also draws on her training in environmental design, with rows of stitching that fan out from the subject to create a sense of perspective.

Sheryl’s 2nd great grandmother Chaney, working in the garden.

In the end, the colors and beauty of these quilts shine through the proud and painful history. One of Sheryl’s most popular quilts is about hope and inclusion. It is also about identity, as the swirling quilted lines form a fingerprint and run throughout the quilt. The beauty, sorrow and dignity woven through these stories of her history are an inspiration to us all.