Sometimes people choose not to share personal stories; but when they do choose to open up about family and friends who have passed on, history and genealogy come alive.
Phyllistene (Phyllis) Biffle-Elmore cherished and still remembers when her grandmother, Lula Young Horn (1883-1988), told such stories – often while stitching the quilt she was making for her young granddaughter. Eventually, she wrote them down and began learning more about her genealogy.
At 3 p.m. on Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, as part of the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum, Biffle-Elmore will give a talk titled, “Stories from the Quilt of Souls.”
In and around Livingston, Alabama, Horn was the preeminent quilter. Using the clothing worn by Black women born before and after the Civil War, “Grandma Lula” expertly crafted colorful, intricate and breathtaking “quilts of souls” following their deaths. She did so as remembrances for their families, who brought her the fabric and told her stories about their deceased loved ones.
With leftover fabric from their clothing, she created for her beloved granddaughter a master “Quilt of Souls” representing the oral tradition and the history of generations of her family, extended family and community, and bringing together the individual stories of several women.
“I’d always planned to write this book,” Biffle-Elmore said. “… I completed and self-published Quilt of Souls in 2015. A traditional publisher and a literary agent picked it up. … I started writing Quilt of Souls: A Memoir in 2017.”
Her first book is a portion of her memoir.
Biffle-Elmore’s own story begins in 1957 when, at 4 years old, she was abruptly taken away from her home in Detroit, Michigan, away from her parents and her seven siblings – including her eldest sister, whom she adored – by five adults who were strangers to her. Without explanation, they drove her all the way to rural Alabama, the home of her maternal grandparents, whom she had never met. She lived there for nine transformative years.
“Quilt of Souls is a tribute to everything I learned about slavery, the resulting African American servitude in this country, and the bravery it took for many women of that era to eke out a semblance of dignity from a culture of white supremacy that tried to deny their basic humanity,” Biffle-Elmore wrote at the end of her memoir.
For her, telling the story of how “African Americans before slavery and during and after Reconstruction … particularly Black women, uplifted themselves and overcame injustices while shielding their families from a host of retributions” is overdue. These injustices include lynchings, other racist atrocities, acts and behaviors, colorism and sexism. And these ordinary, yet simultaneously extraordinary, women include “enslaved people, laundresses, storytellers, healers and quilters.”
Biffle-Elmore is herself an extraordinary woman.
“My parents sent me to live with my grandmother because they couldn’t take care of me,” she said. “Then my mother snatched me back when I was 13. I was treated differently than the other kids, and I ran away to Pittsburgh at 16. I was brought back, but I didn’t want to stay.”
In Detroit, Biffle-Elmore completed junior high and two years of high school. Then she joined the Job Corps in Cleveland, and earned her high school diploma there.
Job Corps had been formed five years earlier, in 1964, as the central program of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” It was modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era emergency relief program.
Biffle-Elmore described it as “a residential training program for at-risk female adolescents” lasting from one to three years, run by Alpha Kappa Alpha, the largest Black sorority in the United States. In 1965, AKA had been awarded a multi-million dollar grant to operate the Cleveland Job Corps. Until 1976, when it began accepting young men, it exclusively trained female high-school dropouts, ages 16 to 21.
“Dr. (Zelma Watson) George was a mentor,” Biffle-Elmore said. “She was the first Black woman who worked for the United Nations, and she was an ambassador, opera singer and the head of Jobs Corps.”
While learning to be a receptionist, Biffle-Elmore also completed as many of the skills taught there as she could. In 1973, during the Vietnam War, she left the Jobs Corps and went directly into the U.S. Air Force, joining “WAF,” the Women’s Air Force.
“I went in when President Nixon had signed an order allowing females to go into non-traditional military jobs, and I did aircraft maintenance on B-52s,” she said. “They were forced to make sure that women went through the technical schools.”
Out of 11 technicians, as the only female specialist on pneudraulics (a combination of hydraulics and pneumatics) on her Air Force base and on overseas operations, she said she filled the quota.
“They hated me,” Biffle-Elmore said. “… I felt severe sexual harassment. … I was from the South. They asked me no questions and didn’t want to know anything about me.”
Because she’d been told “don’t worry, the guys will take care of you; say you broke a nail” when she was recruited into the Air Force, she said she adapted. She became less independent and “focused on shared experiences.” Her supervisor noticed and promoted her. Then she “got two stripes and … had more rank in the class.”
Before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Biffle-Elmore served two temporary duty assignments to Vietnam. The first happened right away; she was sent to Thailand to bring back B-52 Bombers. After serving for five years – one tour – she got out of the Air Force.
At the University of Maryland, Biffle-Elmore earned her Bachelor of Arts in sociology and social work.
“I worked in a long-term treatment facility with adolescents, and got my certification in alcohol, drug and chemical dependence,” she said. “Males were sent by the court and women by social services so they could get their kids back.”
She served as a “counselor for incarcerated youth and for women who were victims of domestic violence.”
In 1986, Biffle-Elmore completed basic training and joined the U.S. Army Reserve. When she was deployed in 1991 to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm, she worked for three months on flight plans with pilots and crews in aviation operations.
Later that year, when she got out of the Army Reserve, Biffle-Elmore began working for Virginia Commonwealth University on alcohol and substance abuse, and remained there for about five years.
“After 9/11, someone talked me into the Army National Guard,” she said. “Then I was deployed (in December 2003) to support Operation Enduring Freedom. I went to Kuwait six or seven times to provide top secret operational support for aircraft.”
When Operation Enduring Freedom ended, Biffle-Elmore worked in counseling for nine more months – marking 10 years as a counseling supervisor for youth and adults suffering from alcohol and substance abuse – before an active duty spot in aviation came up in the Army National Guard.
Since she missed the Army, she signed on and spent eight more years in the military. She served as Aviation Operations Specialist at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, at the National Guard Bureau attached to the Pentagon, and on special detail at Patrick Air Force Base in central Florida teaching equal opportunity, diversity, equity and inclusion for three years. Following 20 years in military service, she chose Florida for her “retirement” in 2013.
Biffle-Elmore is one of just a handful of women in the military who served in three major conflicts.
“The military helped me to grow up,” she said. “The responsibility you have to yourself and others is almost unsurpassed – except with my grandmother.” And perhaps also with her two sons and seven granddaughters.
Having long planned to write Quilt of Souls, she earned a master’s certificate in creative writing from the University of Denver.
“The stories I heard when I went South are what created me,” Biffle-Elmore said. “… In the 1850s, Miss Jubilee was a slave. I would have to sit on her porch with her and her friends. They were building a foundation; building me up. It was almost like they knew I’d be facing an uncertain future.”
She continued, “I want people to realize that these are the women who weren’t the Harriet Tubmans. This story is about the unheard and untold. I wanted to tell the story these unsung women told their granddaughters.”
For instance, Livingston is the county seat of Sumter County, Alabama. Biffle-Elmore said Sumter “had more lynchings, reported and unreported, than anywhere else in the South” until the early 1960s.
“My grandmother would tell me where not to walk – over and near bodies,” she said.
Stories are handed down by talking with and listening to one’s elders.
“I think what happened between my generation and my grandmother’s, is we stopped listening to the tales of old,” she said. “My grandmother took me to a slave cemetery and said, ‘These are the best stories.’ That’s why I got into genealogy. People want to know about their ancestors.”