When Nell Browne left her hometown of Comer in 1972, she had no plans to return. She was the oldest girl of eight children from a loving family of limited means. She led what she describes as a sheltered life in a community that was just beginning to navigate the changing laws in a Jim Crow South. She and two of her brothers were in the first group of seven students integrated into Madison County’s Comer Elementary in 1966, a move spearheaded by Principal Jimmy Means, a white man for whom her mother Alberta had worked.
A few years later, she remembers being asked to wait in the colored waiting room at the local doctor’s office, quietly accepting that, despite the laws that were made to protect Black Americans, some things just weren’t going to change as quickly as she had hoped.
In perhaps an impetuous move toward adulthood and independence, the high school senior married a military man with promises of seeing the world, beginning with the Phillipines in December 1972. As she moved from country to country as a military spouse, packing and unpacking their lives with every new assignment, Nell decided that if she was going to follow her husband, then at least she should have a career too.
“I didn’t just want to be somebody’s housewife, and all I knew how to do was cook, clean, wash and iron. That had never been my dream,” she recalls.
So she enlisted for four years in the Air Force, where she learned telecommunications skills and acquired a sense of identity and accomplishment. At the end of her four-year tour at Fort Walton Beach, Fla., her commanding officer assigned Nell a shared room with a lower-ranked soldier of color; as a sergeant, she was entitled to her own room, which was available. The CO assigned the shared room because he said it didn’t matter, that her tour of duty was almost over, she said. After reflecting, Nell believed it was because of her skin color. She walked out of the CO’s office and re-enlisted out of spite. Sgt. Nell Browne got her private room. And that’s how she made the Air Force a career that spanned three decades, with assignments in Japan and Germany and back to Mississippi and Virginia.
When she was stationed in Biloxi around the late 80s and early 90s, Nell became friends with her neighbor Ms. Nita who taught her how to quilt. Quilting was the last thing Nell wanted to do, especially while caring for two young daughters. But Ms. Nita was persistent, and pushed Nell into a long love affair with quilting.
In 2020 Nell retired with 30 years of combined military service and as a civilian contractor. In 2020, she returned home to Georgia to care for her mother, then 88, who was undergoing cataract surgery. As with the never-intentions of the military life and quilting, Nell’s plans were to return to Virginia. But her heart—and a house that crossed her path by fate—called her to stay in Georgia. In a matter of just a few weeks, she moved Alberta and her 36-year-old nephew with autism out of public housing, into her new home where they all live together in Comer. Reunited with her family and readjusting to the new South, she’s found home again. She’s even set up a quilting room in her new house of which Ms. Nita would surely have been proud.
“You want to quilt, but you don’t know it yet.”
Nell Browne hasn’t always loved quilting. In fact, when she began quilting under the tutelage of her neighbor Ms. Nita more than 30 years ago, she downright loathed it. But Ms. Nita was a lady of great persuasion who sensed that Nell would grow to love the craft as much as her. The Comer, Ga., native had two small girls at the time and quilting was the last thing on her daily agenda. But Ms. Nita insisted she join her every evening in the small quilting house behind her home in Biloxi, Miss., where Nell was stationed with the Air Force. She started small, just a few patches with inconsistent stitches, but over time she has become a master quilter. Nell discovered that the art of quilting was more fulfilling than she ever could have imagined.
Since then, Nell has made around 100 quilts, she guesses, mostly as gifts for family, friends, and even for those who didn’t necessarily know they wanted one of her quilts. And that’s where Nell derives the most joy.
“I have come to love this hobby even though I fought hard against quilting. Ms Nita was right when she said, ‘You want to quilt, but you don’t know it yet.’”
A few years ago, Nell was working as a USAF retired government contractor in D.C., when she decided she was going to do something nice for a retiring not-so-well-liked lieutenant colonel. On the day of the commanding officer’s retirement party, Nell hung up her masterpiece, a patchwork of all the places the lieutenant colonel had been stationed throughout her Air Force career, representing the sacrifices of service for her country.
The CO walked into the room, gave a nonchalant acknowledgement of the quilt, not realizing the quilt was for her. Nell spoke up a few moments later and told the CO she needed to show her something.
“I’m retired. There’s nothing you need to show me,” she replied.
When Nell pointed out the different USAF stations and the years of service, her CO began to cry. She said, “You made this for me?”
Nell replied, “Yes. Everybody deserves to have something that’s memorable when they retire.”
Through tears, the lieutenant colonel uttered, “I didn’t think you liked me.”
Without pause, Nell retorted, “I like you as much as you like me.”
Over a decade later, the CO still has the quilt hanging in the entrance of her home.
Some wondered why Nell made the quilt for their CO, especially given their tenuous relationship.
“Sometimes you have to do what’s right. And I just felt like that was the right thing to do, regardless of how I felt about her and how she felt about me.”
Most of the quilts Nell makes come from a place of generosity and giving, not for pay. Nell gets more joy out of giving a quilt created from what she knows about the person rather than the pressure of creating a quilt that someone has envisioned and it turns out not as they wanted.
“When people ask me to make a quilt, it kind of kills my creativity, especially when it’s not what they were expecting. Then it creates chaos. It creates some hard feelings. I prefer giving a quilt from the heart versus from the want of a person. I require flexibility on all quilts so I can give paying customers the best quilt possible.”
To express that joy of giving, each quilt includes her signature outer binding of music notes.
“My reason behind [the music note border] is because it makes my heart sing when I give a quilt to somebody, especially when they like it or appreciate it. And when anybody sees the border, they know it was made by me.”