By Josh Beavers
A woman with Webster Parish roots is not only a member of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR/DAR) but has also been awarded a prestigious honor.
Sheryl E. Sims received both the Community Service Award and the Women in the Arts Award from the Nelly Custis Chapter of the DAR. She has a permanent virtual exhibition at Woodlawn Plantation. She has also been appointed to a term as Commissioner for the Arts in Alexandria, VA.
Such honors are no surprise to anyone who knows Sims or is at least familiar with her work as a quilt artist. After all, she has a fine arts degree and impressive quilt collection. She has also participated in Woodlawn’s efforts to preserve its history and supports enhancement of the arts throughout Alexandria.
What may be surprising to some is that Sheryl Sims is a woman of color. This may not sound curious at first glance; after all there have been nearly one million women of all ages and backgrounds admitted to the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution since its founding. Therefore, one might think that there must also be many women of color among its ranks.
While there are not as many as one might hope, the organization strives to increase their numbers. Sheryl is the first DAR member of color in the Nelly Custis Chapter and her chapter members are thrilled and supportive. She credits them, especially her 7th cousin, Charlotte Brown, for keeping her encouraged during her 7-year long efforts to be admitted. Ironically, that was the length of the Revolutionary War. DAR members, along with Quaker friends, such as historian, Martha Catlin, from the Alexandria Quaker Meeting, and distant cousins, also helped her with her research. Her maternal line, which carries her Revolutionary War patriot, Andrew Cox, reaches as far back as her Early Quaker 10th great grandfather, who sailed to America from Ireland with William Penn. He is a signer of the Great Charter.
According to researcher Reisha Raney, there are only about two dozen women of color in the organization. Raney, who herself is a woman of color, says that number is a tiny fraction of the DAR’s 180,000-plus current membership.
Raney said in a previously published story that black Americans “weren’t just brought here as enslaved Africans [who] never had a choice until they were liberated by Abraham Lincoln. That’s not the whole story.”
The story and feelings are complicated. Sheryl holds dear the knowledge that her 4th great grandmother, Mariah, was incredibly strong during unimaginable and difficult times. “Had it not been for her strength and endurance, I would not be here. I am truly the dream and the hope of the slave.”
The official DAR website says the organization was founded 1890 with the simple mission of promoting historic preservation, education, and patriotism. They say these timeless, overarching principles keep the DAR strong and vitally relevant in this ever-changing world. There are 3,000 chapters world-wide.
As for the local connection, Sims’ four times great grandfather, Calvin Leary, owned Shadow House. She said her enslaved four times great grandmother lived there with the children Leary fathered by her during the 12-year period he was a widower.
“We were able to provide a written document explaining that he indeed fathered the children, who were mulatto, as he was the only white male on the premises/plantation,” she said. “The document further explained that my enslaved 4th great grandmother, Mariah, would not have been free to roam freely during that time, and she worked in the house cooking and caring for his children.”
She said the enslaved generation gave her the greatest difficulty in that what seemed obvious in terms of the consequences and reality of slavery had to be proven.
“I visited the plantation/Shadow House about 6-7 years ago and was given a tour of the property by current owner Denton Culpepper,” she said. “He’s renamed it, and it’s now his private home.”
Born in Germany and raised as a military dependent, Sims has lived in the Alexandria, Virginia area for many years.
“My parents came from northern and southern Louisiana, where I’ve been able to make some of the connections expressed in my quilt stories, especially to enslaved family members,” she told the Journal.
As one of five children to an army officer and military wife, she moved all over the United States and lived in parts of Asia.
“Over the years I’ve had numerous hobbies such as mineralogy, painting, photography, writing, and genealogy,” she said. “In 2017, I discovered a love of quilting. It was a long time from first learning to sew in the 4th grade while living in Bangkok, Thailand. Later, in high school, I fell back on sewing as my talent when competing in school talent shows, debutant balls, etc.”
Sharing a fabric-based, artistic record that she created and continues to create, is important to her.
“It tells my family’s story: past, present, and particularly about my faith,” she said.
With a degree in environmental design from the University of Houston, she said her creative journey reflects not only a journey into the past, but a parallel journey in the present.
“I’ve actively reached out to the present-day descendants and incarnations of the people, places, and organizations of my past,” she said.
Sims said it is her hope that her quilts will remind her daughter, her family members, and others of their family stories.
“Seeing the threads of my family’s lives come to life in the simple, colorful, quilts that I create, is my legacy to my daughter and future descendants,” she said. “I wish that my parents were alive to bear witness to this accomplishment.”