As you may recall Martin Grizzell, resident of Marseille, led our Black Marseille Tour.
Martin Grizzell is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area who has made France his home away from home. He’s been here for 5 years now. A familiar personality on the American theatrical stage, Mr. Grizzell has performed at the Lincoln Center for the Arts in New York City and the Nice Jazz Festival in Southern France.
Martin is also a textile artist and historian His work is in the permanent collection of the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Grizzell has represented the United States in the annual ConsulArt Exposition at the prestigious Maison de l’Artisanat et des Metiers d’Art Gallery of Marseille.
Our group was invited to spend an evening of wine, jazz, appetizers and good conversation at his apartment/studio about a 10 minute walk from our Hotel at the Vieux Port. As we made our way up his winding staircase to the top floor, most had no idea of what was in store. Martin is a master at his quilting craft, quite an historian and storyteller. As Gregory Porter belted out his tunes softly in the background Martin gradually schooled us in depth on how quilting played a major part in assisting slaves to escape to freedom and just how he became involved in this art.
Sitting in his comfortable, lightly incensed fragrant, compact apartment decorated with African art, artifacts, wall hangings of quilts, and Kente cloths and listening to him break it down about the secret codes, Terms like “As above so below,” and “Hidden in Plain View”, etc. It was mesmerizing and most educational. At times with my eyes closed, It actually transported me back to slavery times as though I was a participant planning to escape the cruel treatment meted out by the plantation owner.
I’ll share with you some of the meanings of the symbols : Wagon Wheel – A signal to the slaves to pack the items needed for travel by wagon or to be used while traveling or to actually load the wagon for escape. Some records indicate that this symbol meant a wagon with compartments in which slaves could hide.
Crossroads – A symbol referring to Cleveland, Ohio which was the main crossroad with several routes to freedom . On a less literal level the term also means reaching a turning point in one’s life where one must make a choice and then carry on.
North Star – This was a symbol with 2 messages: One to prepare to escape and the other to follow the North Star to freedom in Canada. North was the direction of traffic on the Underground Railroad
Shoofly – A symbol that identified a person who could guide slaves and help them escape along the Underground.
Bow tie- A symbol indicating that it was necessary to travel in disguise or to change from the clothing of a slave to that of a person of higher status.
Bear Paw – This code meant to follow a mountain trail, out of view and then follow an actual bear’s trail, which would lead to food and water..
This was a most fascinating evening. Of course, I had to cut early simply because I’m working and work was waiting for me. I understand it was past midnight when they reluctantly said farewell to Martin and a fabulous evening..
If you plan to make a trip this way to Marseille; you must contact Martin for a tour. You will not be disappointed. Martingrizzell@gmail. com