Josie Covington

All right, folks who are smarter than me, I’m wanting to write a ghost story about Josie Covington, but I need just a little firmer factual foundation than I have to leap from. I think this may be, in part, a failure of research imagination. But it also could be that there’s just not all that much to know about her. It’s fine if there’s not that much to know about her, but I just want to know there’s not that much to know about her before setting off on putting her in a ghost story.

So, here’s what I know.

1. She made an quilt. (See this book here.)

2. She was from Triune, Tennessee, which is in Williamson County, out where Nolensville Road crosses 96.

3. She was black.

4. Parts of the quilt may have been pieced by Mrs. Alice Page Pettus (1855-1905), who was Covington’s employer and who may have helped her with the quilt.

5. Some folks identify the maker of this quilt as Sarah Covington and  say the quilt was made about 1910. Now, it’s widely accepted that it was made by Josie Covington in 1895 (see here).

Here’s what my census records searches have revealed.

1. There is no Sarah Covington who appears in the census records  living in Williamson County at this time. The two listed Sarah Covingtons are far east of here. So, I think it’s right that her name is not Sarah.

2. There is one appearance of a Josie Covington. In the 1900 census, Josie Covington is living in Williamson County with her mother, Bettie (a widow) and a bunch of her brothers and sisters. I would expect she had a few older siblings.  Bettie was born in approximately 1850 and Josie was born in 1876. It would have been very unusual for a woman–black or white–in rural Tennessee at this time to wait past 25 to have kids. On the other hand, Josie was 24 and unmarried, so maybe there weren’t a lot of suitors in the area or they had a little economic stability. Hard saying.

But, if Josie was 24 in 1900 and the date of creation on the Covington quilt is right, it means she made that when she was 19. This seems right to me. If she had made the quilt in 1910, either her name would no longer be Covington (most likely) or I would have found a Josie Covington married to one of the Covington men. For Covington to be her maiden name, she’d had to make the quilt when she was young.

Also, if Pettus helped her, and Pettus died in ’05… well, then… that, too, argues for the correctness of the ’95 date.

3. Alice Page is in the census. She was born in the area and married Clem Pettus/Pettis and moved to Nashville by 1880. He was working as a bookkeeper. By 1900, she and Clem were back in Williamson county and Clem was a farmer. They had a ton of kids. So, that checks out. They weren’t too near the Covingtons, from what I can tell, but certainly, if there was a young woman looking for work, the Pettuses could have told each other.

So, my question is–do you think that’s all there is to know? At least that I can find out easily without getting caught up in a chase that’s not going to contribute to the story?

7 thoughts on “Josie Covington

  1. AuntB,

    I wish I had something to offer you in the way of getting more info on Josie Covington, but I don’t.

    I’m just curious where the inspiration to write a ghost story involving this woman came from? Are there already “stories” or rumors out there of “the ghost of Josie Covington”? Or is it just that her identity seems to be shrouded in mystery already, since it’s difficult to find any info on her? Or non of the above, and simply seemed like it would be a good story?

    Either way, it DOES sound, to me, like it would make an interesting ghost story, I look forward to reading it, if you ever get it written.

    Good luck with it.

  2. Hey, Will,

    A long time ago, I was doing research on quilts and I kept coming across Covington’s name and her quilt as being just one of the knock-your-socks off examples of African American quilting that exemplifies how African artistic tropes persisted through the years.

    I promptly forgot her name, but I remembered that she lived in Triune, Tennessee, because I thought that was a strange and random place to be from.

    I thought that I had seen two quilts attributed to her, but my internet search finds me only this one. But this idea of a woman encoding magical symbolism into a quilt is one that sticks with someone like me.

    So, we were driving through Triune a couple of weeks ago on our way to Chapel Hill and that’s what got me thinking about that quilter again.

    And I like my ghost stories to be steeped in enough fact that they feel like they could be real, or at least real stories that people would tell.

    I want them to feel like “This is the spot where that happened.” I want folks who read them to feel like they are really stories about Nashville (and the surrounding areas).

    So, yeah, my “Josie Covington” won’t have much in common, I’m sure, with the life of the real Josie Covington. But I want it to seem like that’s a way her life could have gone, if only fate had taken another turn.

    I won’t be embarrassed if her descendants were to find it and say “Oh, god, she really actually didn’t know anything about quilting. That quilt was made when Mrs. Pettis was trying to teach her.”

    But I would be embarrassed if they were to hypothetically show up and be all “Um, you couldn’t do five seconds worth of research to learn that our Great Grandma never lived even near there?”

    Shoot, I’m still a little nervous that Elizabeth Bennett’s descendants might be pissed that I wrote her taking up with the Devil.

    But I hope using real, long-dead, people makes folks curious about the lives of our past neighbors.

    And I hope they find the stories a little creepy. And, most of all, I hope that creep carries over, so that when they next, say, find themselves in Triune, they think of my story.

  3. Now I REALLY want to read the story.

    Thanks. I love your approach to writing. Those are the type of stories I love to read.

    Good luck with your research.

    (BTW, Where can I find the story about Elizabeth Bennett shackin’ up with Satan?)

  4. Yeah, but I want to know the story of the woman discussed right before her in that book: Louiza Francis Combs, born in Guinea but moved to the US in the mid-1860s. Now, that has to be a story. Even if it’s just a case of her having been a missionary’s child. But I like to think that there African-American colonists in that area who came back once slavery was ended, and she was their child.

  5. I am so sad that your Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Austen’s are different.

    Pride And Predudice with Satan: Now THERE’S a mashup I’d read.

  6. Well, since it is to be a ghost story, maybe she isn’t in the census records because she was killed or murdered or died on childbirth and didn’t make the supremely awesome quilt for Josie until after she died. Or something. Hell, B., it’s fiction with a tad of truth.

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