Living in Stafford, VA, and commuting through the DC traffic daily was hectic and stressful. Roy Mitchell Jr. needed a break. In 1990, he and a friend, Faith Smith decided to take a weekend trip to the Virginia State Fair in Manassas Virginia. Once there, they came upon a display of quilts. Roy says they were beautiful quilts like those he had slept under as a child. His friend wanted him to purchase one. He was against it because of the price.
“I couldn’t appreciate the price, not understanding the time, effort, creativity and designing put into creating a quilt. I looked at the quilt as just something to keep you warm. Roy said proudly. I told Faith, I could make this. Faith held him to his word, and he decided to take a quilting class.
At the Stafford quilt shop he took a beginner’s quilting class; Roy was not just the only man; he was the only African American as well. The women were receptive to him and helped him get caught up to where they were. Classes met weekly starting with basic blocks, a Nine Patch, Bears Claw and Drunker’s Path. The quilt shop closed, and the class ended however, Roy says he continued working on quilts creating a Double Wedding Ring king-size quilt. When his son was born, he slowed down however, he would still sew squares to keep in practice but never completed anything. Because of his true passion for quilting, he started back in 2004. He wanted to create something unique. While sitting in his kitchen surrounded by all of his Black memorabilia, he came up with a unique idea.
“I should make something with people eating watermelon,” he said. Watermelon has always been negatively linked to black culture. What many have seen as a negative link is really a powerful link to life, strength, and survival. Watermelons are native to the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa. The watermelon like Black people is strong, durable, and versatile. “I want to show this positive link between my African American culture and watermelon. I am proud of my heritage, and I want to acknowledge it and share it with others by giving birth to the Watermel’un Babies.”
He then started sketching characters and this is how it all came together. Mrs. Viola Williams Canady, founder, and president of “Daughters of Dorcas and Sons,” taught him how to do couching, a technique in which embroidery floss is laid across the raw edges of the design and stitched around the fabric using 3,6,9 or 12 strands of floss. Then the floss is stitch in place with small stitches of the same or a different embroidery floss. The couching threads may be either the same color as the laid threads or contrasting color. It can be confused with using an applique however Roy’s first watermelun baby quilt he used all hand-couching and hand quilting. This quilt was featured in the National Quilters Association (N.Q.A.) magazine in the 2008 issue. The watermelon baby quilt was also featured in the NQA quilt exhibit in Columbus Ohio 2008.
Roy stated that every time he encountered Ms. Canady, she encouraged him to continue with his work, informing him that he needed to stay true to himself because bigger and better things were in store for him. At that time, he couldn’t understand why or how yet he heeded her words and continued. “I had taught my son quilting and he used it for a school contest. He created a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado out of fabric and won first place.”
Being part of the “Daughters of Dorcas and Sons” was rewarding and learning from Mrs. Canady who taught him everything he knows about quilting.
In 2013, Roy established the First Quilting Class with Virginia Department Juvenile Justice Yvonne B. Miller High School on the campus of the Culpepper Department Juvenile Justice. When the facility closed the program moved to Belmont Department Juvenile Justice and now at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. When he first suggested the idea, he was told that ‘the thugs’ would not want to learn anything pertaining to this art. He held fast to his dream, as Ms. Canady had told him and not only has the class been a success, but he also relishes the fact that he has never had a behavior issue in his class. He has a sign at the door that states: “Leave Someone outside the door and bring Somebody inside” Believe that you’re somebody! It is not what you did, it is what you want to do and it’s not where you’ve been, it is where you’re going. It took “Someone” who did the crime to get into this facility; it takes that “Somebody” who has been changed to walk out of here.” The young men not only learn quilting, but they are also learning how to do upholstery, draperies, teamwork, discipline, social skills, self-confidence, discipline, creativity, manage time, feedback, criticism, employable and communication skill.
During the pandemic, Roy created 550 protective masks for his fellow staff members and residents at Bon Air, as well as for some local hospitals and other community members in need. In addition to Bon Air staff, he has donated masks to hospitals, several assisted living facilities, and to senior citizens in his hometown where he grew up.
Roy has been honored and has received a plethora of accomplishments as in 2008, being the first African American male to be featured as a quilter in the National Quilting Association magazine, REB Teaching Excellence Award, acknowledgment from Sen. Mark Warner, publication in numerous magazines as well as several exhibits. Roy has also been a special guest with Governor Terry McAuliffe at his 2016 State of The Commonwealth speech. He was a guest speak for the African American Quilt Guild in Flint, Michigan two consecutive years. On his second visit, he had a quilt that lit up in lights. He created a quilt for Livingstone College, his alma mater, depicting all the presidents of the college.
The juveniles he works with created a special quilt for Virginia commemorating the governors of Virginia and presented the quilt to Governor Terry and Dorothy McAuliffe at the Governor Mansion in Richmond Virginia in December 2015. The young men in the quilting program traveled to Winston Salem, NC 2019 to display their skills and talent. It was the first time for many of them to have ever been out of the state of Virginia.
The young men’s quilts have been displayed in the Mid Atlantic Quilt Festival in Hampton Virginia for 6 consecutive years. The young men have also had the pleasure of participating in the shows. He has taken his juvenile class on trips to exhibitions to display their quilts and for some of the young men, it was the first time they had ever worn a suit, tie, and dress shoes. Roy furnishes clothing for all the young men in the program at his own expense. They have been in the Mid-Atlantic Quilt Festival, which is one of the largest quilt shows, having over 40,000 people come over a four-day period. The boys actually go to the show at the Hampton Coliseum with their work and had traveled to Roanoke to present a show at the Harrison Museum as well.
“I would hate for the first time that these young men wears a suit is when he is lying in his coffin,” Roy stated as the reason for him purchasing the items.
His next project is far-reaching across the globe. He plans to go to Kumasi Ghana outside of Acura to learn the art of Kente weaving. He has become intrigued by the making of Kente (a type of weaving that is in Ghana and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips and is native to the Akan tribe in Ghana). Someone nominated him for a Teaching of Excellence Award that required Roy to create a proposal on what he would do if he were awarded $12,000. Though he felt he had no chance of winning considering he was competing with 118 teachers of English, Math, History and other subjects. Ms. Canady’s words came back, and he wrote the proposal on his vision of going to Ghana, West Africa to learn how to weave Kente. His reasons were to help with the crime in the area by giving the young men something tangible. “You can stop a lot of crime if you teach them to use their minds. The mind is the thing to capture,” Mitchell said. He was informed that only 19 people would be selected. When he got the call that he won, he was shocked.
His plan is to go learn how to do the weaving. He has already been there six times and has selected the fabrics that he uses in his quilts. I’m going to go there and work under a Master Weaver in Kumasi and stay for about a month or more to learn the art of Kente weaving.
In the meantime, he’s working on a quilts called Sunday Sisters featuring Black women in their church hats. In 2023, he’s considering selling some of his pieces. He states he is running out of room in his studio for all the work he has completed. He hopes to return to Roanoke to gather information to create a quilt commemorating Henry Street where black businesses where during segregated time commemorating the Gainesboro and “the Yard” neighborhoods.
In parting, he wants to leave a message: “There is no such job as a woman’s job or a man’s job anymore. Everything is a job and there is no profession that women or men cannot do. Whatever you do be the best.
Follow your dream. Remember you are recognized by your own success and not that of man! I want my African American brothers and sisters to be proud of who we are as African Americans and the accomplishments we have made as African American people.”
Roy remains enthusiastic about his past, current, and future ventures as well as the inspiration and hope they have brought those around him. As Ms. Canady predicted during their earlier meetings, he is destined for greater things.