Lawrence quilter and historian Marla Jackson believes her calling is to unfold neglected stories of Black history. Heading into the next few years, she plans to do that and much more.
“We are our ancestors’ survivors,” Jackson said. “I know that I’m living in my purpose on this earth.”
Jackson, who is the founder and owner of Marla Quilts Inc. in eastern Lawrence, has been extensively researching a Black woman named Maria Rogers Martin since 2012. Martin was once enslaved with her family in Harrisonville, Missouri at the Wayside Rest Plantation until she was kidnapped by Union soldiers and brought to Lawrence in 1861.
Jackson’s research and artwork shows the vast identities of Martin and other freedom-seekers outside of the circumstances placed on them.
Martin became the first Black person to bring a lawsuit against the city of Lawrence, for neglecting to make sidewalk repairs that caused her an ankle injury. Although she lost, the situation was instrumental in her autonomy and knowledge navigating the system, Jackson said.
Black people challenging institutions in this way was seen as preposterous at the time, but Jackson said Martin always considered herself a free woman and an equal. Martin was also a skilled quilter who made history, creating the oldest known preserved quilts by a person who was enslaved. She lived and worked as a paid servant in Lawrence for more than 40 years.
Last year, Jackson received a grant from the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area to create a piece immortalizing Martin. Additionally, she received another grant from Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, which she used to hire a costume designer to recreate a 19th-century dress that Martin once wore.
Today, both projects have come to life in Jackson’s studio.
Jackson repurposed a dresser into a mural of Martin’s life, including a photo of her son Benjamin, news articles from the time period, information about Wayside Plantation, a patch from a quilt Martin made, and other items representing her life.
Jackson credited Diane Guthrie, Kyla Love and her Beyond the Books staff with assisting her.
She also worked with costume designer Sara Bunn, who created a 19th-century-styled dress similar to one Martin wore in the most well-known photo of her.
One of her newest projects, called “Untold Stories of Former Enslaved Americans Who Sought Freedom in Lawrence, KS,” includes a grant she recently received from the Freedom’s Frontier to create informational pamphlets documenting her research, according to a Marla Quilts, Inc. news release.
“This project aims to bring to light the stories of the formerly enslaved individuals who sought freedom in Lawrence, Kansas during the Civil War era,” the news release said. “Through the use of quilts, mosaic and collage murals, and other visual arts, Marla Quilts Inc. will work with local historical societies and descendants of these individuals to tell their stories and honor their bravery and resilience.”
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2024 National African American Quilt Convention
As she works on various projects in the new year, Jackson is simultaneously working toward making bigger moves in 2024. That year’s National African American Quilt Convention (NAAQC), which was founded by Jackson in partnership with Black Archives of Mid-America, is scheduled to be held in Lawrence in August 2024.
She said the convention’s theme will be “Have You Heard the Call from the Ancestors?” and she’s working to bring folks together to celebrate Black quilt artwork and heritage. Part of that includes around 10 Black visionaries she’s recruiting to serve on a panel to discuss equity concepts, such as reparations.
“I’m asking all Black folks to make the call for reparations,” Jackson said. “I totally feel the families of those who were formerly enslaved are owed reparations due to forced enslavement.”
Jackson’s current quilt exhibition
Until then, Jackson continues to tell stories through her detailed craftwork. Her quilts are currently being showcased in an exhibition at the Lumberyard Arts Center in Baldwin City, deemed the “Quilt Capital of Kansas.”
The exhibition, entitled “Sankofa: Lessons Learned,” is based on her book of narrative quilts. She utilized materials, such as Batik cotton fabric, cowrie shells, wire and beads to hand make the featured pieces.
“Sankofa,” in the Twi language, spoken mainly in Ghana, translates to “go back and get it.” Visual narrations depict traditional African culture as well as Black resistance, liberation and empowerment.
Jackson is scheduled to lead a community conversation about her gallery, from 2-3:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4 at the Lumberyard Arts Center, 718 High St. in downtown Baldwin City. The exhibition will remain there through Tuesday, Feb. 14, with viewing hours from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Admission is free.