Center of 19th Century Textile History

 Center of 19th Century Textile History


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Textile historian Cuesta Benberry and contemporary quilter Krya E. Hicks spent eleven years

 researching numerous documents to restore Martha’s memory to its proper place in history



At The Center of 19th Century Textile History

By Carolyn Warfield, Great Lakes African American Quilters Network


A complementary collaboration of writer and artist offers young readers a commendable story of African-derived material culture from a woman of African descent.  Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria authored by Kyra E. Hicks and illustrated by Lee Edward Fodi, is a compelling and uncompromising story of the importance of action and endurance; being focused to achieve goals. Martha’s story is a momentous reflection of past history in the earshot of modern social problems.

How many people could have a mighty heart, and keep the hope of a dream, for half a century? Martha Ann Ricks did and accomplished her dream with passion. The African appliqué Coffee Tree quilt Ricks made for Queen Victoria is a remarkable, surviving, 19th century cloth heirloom. Presented to Victoria in 1892, a fine expression of art found itself in the hands of a European woman with a political worldview far more strategic than one quilter could ever know or articulate.

Family genealogy and records research were part of Kyra’s approach to getting at the truth of Ricks story. “Martha Ann’s great, great grandchildren shared oral family histories about her, yet had never seen the published accounts of their great, great grandmother,” Hicks said. I think Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria has a reassuring message for young and old alike, of capturing the transformative strength of history, especially when American history often is associated with structural racism and exclusion. Martha’s story fits the category of humanities and represents “living history.”  Martha was an authentic cultural protagonist of the African Diaspora, making history from her experience as an ordinary black woman.

Textile historian Cuesta Benberry and contemporary quilter Krya E. Hicks spent eleven years researching numerous documents to restore Martha’s memory to its proper place in history. Her story helps us understand the consequences of history while exposing the connections between history and power during a period when America had its first obsession with the color issue. As a product of individual decisions and choices, history always occurs within larger institutional contexts and socioeconomic environments.  While Martha’s deed may have been motivated by a higher source, her conscious will produced the royal gift. What an impressive and revealing reality in 1892, for a Liberian woman to be at the center of 19th century textile history. As a testimonial of material preservation, Queen Victoria displayed the charming Coffee Tree Quilt at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where a large number of people saw it.

Early proponents of Manifest Destiny thought the presence of blacks in America was a threat to the national security and quality of life for whites. So in 1816, the federal government established the American Colonization Society (ACS) to set up African colonies to get rid of their free African Americans. John Quincy Adams believed the aims of the ACS would lead to imperialism. Increasingly, slave states organized colonization societies independent of the ACS and founded their own colonies in Liberia.

Martha Ann was born about 1817 as one of seven children on Doherty Plantation in eastern Tennessee. That same year Richard Allen, James Forten and Absalom Jones, among a large group of free blacks, gathered at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, to protest the Colonization Society’s attempts to exile African Americans from the land of their birth. By the time Martha’s father, George Erskine, had saved enough money to buy his family’s freedom, the girl was almost a teenager.  As a free man, Erskine was ordained and sent to Liberia as a Presbyterian minister in 1820. By 1829, the Tennessee Colonization Society had organized to send emancipated slaves to Liberia, and transplanted 870 ex-slaves to Africa during the period which ended in 1866.

An 1831 law said that emancipation of a slave had to be accompanied by removal from the state. Thus, the Tennessee Colonization Society was the only anti-slavery activity tolerated in the state after the 1830s. The Erskine family sailed to Liberia in 1830 where they permanently settled and prospered. Martha advanced in school and education, mastered her mother’s informal sewing instruction, and became a well-respected weaver and seamstress as the years passed.

Martha’s knowledge of “Victoria, new queen of England came from reading the Liberian newspaper.” A statement of point in Hicks’ book: “Martha Ann’s admiration of the Queen for trying to save her and others from slavery by sending the Navy to patrol the coast of Liberia to stop slave catchers from kidnapping black folks and forcing them into slavery” was my pretext for observing Victoria’s military record in Africa. Actually, 170 years ago, Princess Alexandria Victoria, age eighteen, ascended to the British throne when her uncle, King William IV died in June, 1837. On William’s watch, the British Emancipation Act was adapted in 1833 to abolish slavery in the British Empire and Canada. Young Victoria, crowned Queen on June 28, 1838, had the longest reign in British history ending with death in 1901.

In 1837 when Victoria inherited the throne, Great Britain was perceived as a corrupt country. During her monarchy, the country was swept along with the Industrial Revolution and witnessed enormous economic and social changes. Victorian values of comfort and wealth were in sharp contrast to appalling poverty and child cruelty. Under Victoria’s headship, England came to be known as the Age of Empire. The country ruled the largest empire the world had yet seen and stretched across one quarter of the world’s land mass.

Gains occurred in the Sudan, Gold Coast, and southern Africa in the Zulu Wars. Moreover, Liberia and Sierra Leone came under British influence. Great Britain was drawn into Africa to protect the trade routes through to the Indian subcontinent and Far East Africa. Subsequently, the Brits were drawn to Egypt to protect the Sudanese route, an overland link through the Middle East, and their presence in South Africa to protect the Cape. After 1870, Africa became the focus of international rivalries over colonies collecting colonies.

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 Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria By Kyra E. Hicks, Illustrated by Lee Edward Fodi

Book Description

Martha Ann is 12 years old when Papa finally purchases her freedom from slavery and moves the family from Tennessee to Liberia. On Market days, Martha Ann watches the British Navy patrolling the Liberian Coast to stop slave catchers from kidnapping family and neighbors and forcing them back into slavery. Martha Ann decides to thank Queen Victoria in person for sending the Navy. But first, she has to save money for the 3,500-mile voyage, find a suitable gift for the queen, and withstand the ridicule of those who learn of her impossible dream to meet the Queen of England.  Source:

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Carolyn Warfield is an award winning visual artist and writer living in Michigan.

posted 30 June 2007

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 16 October 2007 




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