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Voices Spring-Summer 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read obituaries for Sean Killeen and Ora Kirkland here.
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Volume 29
ObituariesRemembering Sean Killeen

Sean Killeen, founder of the Lead Belly Society and a friend of the New York Folklore Society, died on the morning of February 8 in a Nashville hotel; he was to address the Folk Alliance annual conference in Nashville later that day. When he was in college, Sean (pronounced Shane) had seen Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter in concert, and from that beginning his interest in Lead Belly’s music and his life grew to become a passionate commitment.

A long-time resident of Ithaca, Sean began publishing the quarterly Lead Belly Letter around 1990, about the time I became director of the New York Folklore Society. He would drop by the NYFS office from time to time to talk about Lead Belly, the society, or local and international politics. We helped him get the word out about his newsletter and distributed it at NYFS events. He was continually immersed in research and writing about Lead Belly, corresponding with people all over the world, and in subsequent years he issued previously unreleased recordings of Lead Belly’s music.

Sean lead a rich and committed life. A stint in the Peace Corps in Turkey in the 1960s launched his engagement with international relations, which included a decade as director of Cornell University’s Einaudi Center for International Studies. He spent much of the past six years serving as a volunteer election supervisor and monitor for the United Nations in the Balkans and the former republics of the Soviet Union. He was also active in many community organizations and served for seven years on the Ithaca Common Council. But whenever we met, whatever the initial topic, Sean always brought the conversation around to Lead Belly.

Ora Kirkland: African American Quilter

Ora Kirkland learned to quilt from her mother Julia and her grandmother Harriett. Her grandmother worked with big rectangles and irregular pieces from whatever was available, often men’s pants or fabric samples. Door-to-door clothing salesmen of the time—Ora was born in Orlando in 1918—would give Harriett remnants of discontinued fabrics, and consequently, her quilts seldom had much color. Ora and her mother, a domestic worker, also got fabric from stores and flea markets and would mix it with scraps from the clothes they made.

Photo of Ora Kirkland
Ora Kirkland in 1993. Photo: Nancy Solomon.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work, Ora moved to New York City, where she worked until her retirement in 1981. She moved to Hempstead, Long Island, in 1976. During her adult years workplace demands and the needs of her family took precedence over quilting, but after she retired, she took up quilting again. In a break with the tradition she had learned from her mother and grandmother, she used a sewing machine and created some quilts in modern styles, among them "The MusAfrica Quilt," which profiles several African American musicians. "The Impeachment," which reflects her high regard for President Clinton and her anger at the 1999 impeachment proceedings, and "Akilah’s Quilt" incorporate traditional patterns.

Ora’s quilts have been exhibited in Long Island museums, libraries, churches, and quilt competitions. She was active in the Long Island Quilters Society and the Long Island Embroiderers Guild of America. She was also an adviser to the Long Island Black Crafters Guild.

Ora passed away on March 24, 2003.


These obituaries appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Spring-Summer 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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