Quilter Marla Jackson preserves African American history in Lawrence through art and education

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Lawrence quilter and historian Marla Jackson tells powerful stories of Black resistance and freedom through textile art with vibrant colors, patterns and pieces of history. She hopes to continue promoting creative expression in the Lawrence community.

Jackson’s works have been showcased in more than 35 national and international venues, including the American Folk Art Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. One of her most famous works is part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C.


In 2018, Jackson received the Anyone Can Fly Annual Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Faith Ringgold, an artist best known for her narrative quilts and paintings that commentate on politics and society.

Jackson says Ringgold is her creative mentor and inspiration. Both artists are Black women who have contributed to social justice through textile storytelling.

Jackson’s fascination with quilts began when she was a young girl. Her great-grandmother had a quilt on her bed that was very damaged. Jackson recalls wishing she would just get rid of the old thing.

“I was little, and when she would leave I would go get a pair of scissors and cut the strings within the quilt up,” Jackson said.

Jackson soon understood the value in her great-grandmother’s old quilt when learned it was made of her family members’ and ancestors’ clothing.

“My great-grandmother was 16 years old when slavery ended. That quilt represented her people, so it represented my people too,” Jackson said.

Her mother taught her how to sew while her grandmothers and great-grandmother showed her the technique behind sewing and quilting, and eventually she became an advanced quilter herself.

Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Marla Jackson holds a quilt depicting writer and activist James Baldwin, best known for his commentary on race in America during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. His books “Notes of a Native Son,” “The Fire Next Time” and “I Am Not Your Negro” are among his most popular works.

Jackson grew up in Detroit, Michigan, in a suburb called Royal Oak Township. She remembers the trauma caused by switching to an all-white school during desegregation after she had attended all-Black schools up until seventh grade. She quickly learned the realities of the world, but she could not accept racism as the norm.

She moved to Lawrence in 1978, dove into its history and later became a community-based visual art educator.

Beyond being a self-taught artist, Jackson is the director of Marla Quilts Inc., a nonprofit African American quilt museum and textile academy at 2001 Haskell Ave. in Lawrence.

Through her academy, Jackson runs a program called Beyond the Book in which she works with students ages 12 through 18 on how to conduct research, mostly on topics like the Civil War, civil rights and social justice. She then teaches them how to make quilts and curate shows.

“Each kid in my program has the chance to represent their own culture through textile art,” Jackson said. “My greatest joy is working with these kids. They are our future.”

Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Students from Liberty Memorial Central Middle School who are members of Beyond the Book created a quilt titled “First Kansas Colored Troops.”

Jackson’s ultimate dream is to build a living history museum in Lawrence to honor Maria Rogers Martin and freedom-seekers who escaped enslavement by way of the Underground Railroad. Martin was enslaved with her family in Harrisonville, Missouri, at the Wayside Rest Plantation until she was kidnapped by Union soldiers and taken to Lawrence in 1861.

According to Jackson, Martin was born enslaved but lived free.

Maria Rogers Martin

“She was very independent here in Lawrence. Despite the racism, she always knew she was an equal,” Jackson said.

Martin was able to sue Lawrence on her own for its negligence in needed sidewalk repairs, which caused her an ankle injury. Though she did not win, she learned how to navigate the system and became the first Black person to bring a lawsuit against the city of Lawrence.

Martin was also a quilter, and she made history with the oldest known preserved quilts created by a person who was enslaved. The handmade bedspreads she created for slave masters served more as symbols of her power than of her bondage.

As a partner with the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, Jackson received a $3,000 grant from the organization to create a mural immortalizing Martin. It is set to be done by August.

She also received a $7,500 grant from Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, which she used to hire a costume designer to recreate a 19th-century dress that Martin wore.

Jackson feels personally connected to Martin, who she has been researching since 2012. She believes her calling is to tell Martin’s story and the stories of all Black people who endured racism in Lawrence during the reconstruction era.

“I owe them honor because they sacrificed so much for us,” Jackson said.

To foster a “culture that values Black history,” Jackson says she plans to revitalize Haskell Square, the strip mall at 19th Street and Haskell Avenue, into a historical district with resources for community members.

Jackson has several ideas for the strip mall, including a bookstore where children of color can find books that represent them; a building with all the technology and resources that kids in her program need to conduct research and create art; a men’s mental health center; the living history museum and more.

“I am a firm believer in putting money and resources into communities, especially those who are underrepresented and underserved, and I hope to do just that in Lawrence,” Jackson said.

Lawrence Creates Inc. will be making a documentary that features Jackson and other artistic contributions by Black women, titled “Queen Bee: African American Women Stitching Freedom.” They are set to start filming this coming April.

Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Marla Jackson holds a quilt depicting abolitionist John Brown.
Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Marla Jackson’s piece, “Labor Ready,” depicts shackles, which were meant to restrict enslaved people from escaping while they completed daily labor.
Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Marcus Garvey, on the left, was a Jamaican political activist and writer who sought after Black nationalism and encouraged Black people to connect with their African roots. Ida B. Wells, on the right, was an investigative journalist, educator and civil rights leader who led an anti-lynching crusade in the 1890s, fought for women’s suffrage and helped establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Nina Simone was a famous singer-songwriter who specialized in a variety of genres, including classical, jazz and R&B.
Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Marla Jackson and her students are now utilizing a process called sublimation, which involves a special printer that uses pressure and heat to transfer designs from quilts they have created to mugs, T-shirts and other items.
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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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