Family matriarch quilts stories, relives civil rights history with needle and thread

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Mary Rials pushes the needle tip through the quilt top and pulls the thread taut with the help of a trio of metal and silicone thimbles. It looks like her hands are doing all the work, but there’s another source of inspiration and strength tugging that needle and thread back and forth through the thick layers of batting and fabric.

“It comes from the heart,” she explains.

Mary, 85, has designed, cut, pieced and quilted about 200 quilts since she retired from the University of Kansas in 2000. Each one is unique and special, individually crafted for a friend or loved one.

Her latest quilt, Dare to Dream, represents a new project for the seamstress. It’s her first quilt to tell the story of the civil rights movement. Featuring significant figures from the 1950s and ‘60s, the project stitches together a story of hope and history intertwined with Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of freedom and justice for all.

“I loved doing this,” Mary says. “This is my favorite project I’ve done.”

With needle and thread, Mary connects a variety of photographed scenes from historic moments. Daughters Rita Rials and Nicole Rials had the images printed on fabric. Not all measure the same shape or size, so that variation presented some challenges for Mary. But she was up to the task. Quilting helps Mary focus, and the project came together in about two months.

“It made me go back and think about it,” Mary pauses, noting King’s assassination and the memories Dare to Dream stirred. “There’s a lot of therapy in quilting.”

In black and white images, there’s tiny Ruby Bridges making history as the first Black child in New Orleans to desegregate her all-white elementary school. Another block highlights the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. Others feature King, his family, scenes from his funeral, and fellow members of the movement, including a very young activist — John Lewis, from Georgia — who would later serve 33 years in the U.S. Congress. Social protest figures from the bus boycotts also are honored in the blocks.

“And right here, he said, ‘I have a dream,’” Mary says, pointing out King at the top of the quilt. “So I put this one first and his family next.”

Each color of fabric represents a significant part of Black history.

“The black, of course, represents our culture, as people of color. The green is for the native land,” Rita says. “The red represents the blood that was shed for civil rights, and the yellow is for prosperity.”

The collaborative quilt takes the stage in January when Rita, a playwright, and Nicole, a social worker, team up with the Lied Center of Kansas again to present the onstage production, “April 4, 1968: Dare to Dream,” in partnership with Life Restoration Ministries, which Nicole founded in 2007.

The play features “music essential to the life of Dr. King and the civil rights movement and will inspire audiences to keep the dream alive,” according to a promotional video.

Last summer, a separate quilt by Mary appeared on the Lied stage in the sisters’ Juneteenth production, “Love Does: A Celebration of Juneteenth.” Mary’s civil rights quilt will be featured in a prominent role during this event.

“This time is really special to have her work featured as part of the production,” Nicole says. “It is significant to the story.”

Mary hails from a large family. She had nine sisters and four brothers and grew up in the South — the Delta, to be exact, in Mississippi.

She married AB Rials Sr. and they moved to Lawrence in the ‘60s. For decades, Mary stayed busy raising her family and working. The Rials had 13 children and many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, whom Mary proudly refers to as her “GGs.”

Retirement came near the turn of the century, and Mary’s husband died in 2004.


Mary lovingly recalls memories prompted by gifts hanging from her Christmas tree, including a Santa Claus cup that belonged to her husband. Then she turns to quilts.

Although she grew up learning from a mom who sewed, Mary wouldn’t pick up the quilting hobby for decades. She’s mostly self-taught.

Mary and Nicole hold up the Pineapple Quilt, which arrived precut.

“But I put it together,” Mary says. “And I made the border and I hemmed this one by machine.”

String quilts – made from long fabric strips – dot Mary’s living room as she explains various patterns she’s hand-quilted throughout the years. There’s a crimson, blue and yellow one too: her KU String Quilt.

“If I have to give a gift for something, I love giving quilts because it’s a lifetime thing,” Mary says. “They last forever.”

Mary estimates she spends three to four hours a day sewing. She’s slowed down some over the years, but her stitches “from the heart” blanket friends and loved ones near and far. 

She remembers a Jayhawk quilt she made for former KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, a T-shirt quilt she crafted for Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Lewis, and a Mustang quilt put together for Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. She makes bags for each quilt, too, to keep them protected during storage.

“I think it’s good for me at my age. I think it keeps me sharp and focused on things,” Mary says.

Another hobby Mary has enjoyed in retirement: fishing.

“I love it. Only reason I’m not fishing is because of the virus and the cold weather,” she says. “I like channel cat fishing and crappie.”

Mary’s Dare to Dream quilt makes its debut in early 2023. “April 4, 1968: Dare to Dream” takes place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Lied Center. Tickets can be purchased at this link or by phone at 785-864-2787.

Through Dec. 31, the Douglas County Community Foundation will match all donations up to $2,500 to Life Choice Ministries during its Giving for Good campaign. You can donate at this link.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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