African American quilt convention in Lawrence reveals quilt from Georgia plantation; exhibit open at Watkins Museum

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“To me, it symbolizes freedom – how they broke out like birds,” Lawrence quilter and historian Marla Jackson said of an 1800s quilt believed to be made by a Black person who was enslaved.

The quilt, with pink, red, blue and other colors, had frilling and tearing that made it seem opened up. Jackson said, “This is history.”

She and other artists and friends, many of them fellow quilters, gathered on Thursday evening at the Spencer Museum of Art.

Some traveled to Lawrence from New Jersey, Indiana, California and other areas to participate in the 2024 National African American Quilt Convention, directed by Jackson.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Marla Jackson

After Jackson and Susan Earle, curator of European and American art at the Spencer, rolled and spread out the large quilt on a table, participants shuffled around.

Pulling from their expertise, individuals chimed in about the condition of the quilt. Given how delicate it is, the group agreed it needed to be handled gracefully, and preferably with gloves. Room temperature would be an important factor, too.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Participants examine a quilt believed to be created by a Black person who was enslaved at a Georgia plantation.

Jackson welcomed ideas on how to best preserve the quilt, now that it’s in her care.

She said a researcher named Mark Levy acquired it from a former plantation in Newnan, Georgia. It couldn’t be tied to a specific date or person, but she’s looking forward to conducting extensive research. 

She estimated the quilt could’ve been created between the 1840s and 50s.

Some sections looked too fresh, and the group agreed the quilt had been added onto over the years. They identified fabrics used, such as Madras plaid — a cotton fabric that was expensive and especially popular in the 1960s. 

Another quilt Jackson reviewed Thursday was a project completed in 2011. She and students in her textile academy program, Beyond the Book, had spent time researching together about the Civil War and Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Marla Jackson discusses a quilt about the Civil War and Quantrill’s Raid that she and students in her textile academy program created.

They gained new knowledge about Black union soldiers in Lawrence who weren’t honored like white union soldiers were. Knowing they’d learn new histories could not have prepared them for the disappointment of realizing they’d been lied to, she said, but they also felt proud.

The warping or suppression of Black histories is akin to re-enslaving descendants of slavery, Jackson said. That’s because “enslavement is in the mind,” painter and quilter Theresa Polley-Shellcroft added.

Approximately 8-by-12, the quilt included pieces that Jackson guided her students in dyeing and sewing. Jackson then spent two months hand-stitching, and the quilt was completed after a year.

The four-day National African American Quilt Convention, which took place in art venues across Lawrence and Kansas City, celebrated textile arts, mixed media and research. Artists taught workshops in African tie dyeing, double stitching, operating sewing machines and more.

Faith Ringgold, renowned quilter, was one of Jackson’s “sheroes,” she said.

Ringgold was set to be the convention’s keynote speaker, but she died around two months prior at age 93. Jackson took time to honor her Thursday.

During the convention, historian Brenda Pitts shared about her ancestor, John Anthony Copeland, and his role as one of the 21 raiders who stormed the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Jackson also brought her research about freedom-seekers in Lawrence, including Maria Rogers Martin and Sarah Elizabeth Taylor Lawton to light.

“When I think of you, Marla, I think of an overcomer,” said Pitts, who garnered nods and hums in agreement from the room.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Marla Jackson, left, and Brenda Pitts, wearing red

Throughout the evening, Jackson shared nuggets from her life and all she’d been through. But like the phoenix on her and her students’ quilt, she said she’s continued rising above the ashes.

“You guys are my life,” Jackson told her peers. “You guys have all been my role model.”

Learn more: Watkins Museum Exhibit

In conjunction with the National African American Quilt Convention, an exhibit is open beginning Friday at the Watkins Museum of History. It features work by Jackson, Polley-Shellcroft, Veronica Mays and April Anue Shipp, who expressed their family and community heritage through quilt art.

“Honoring the Ancestors: African American Textile Arts” is on display through July 30 in the Watkins Museum’s second floor changing exhibit gallery. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 1047 Massachusetts St. in downtown Lawrence. Admission is free.

The museum will also stay open until 7 p.m. Friday, June 21 for Midsummer Night on Mass.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Marla Jackson, left, and Veronica Mays discuss a quilt believed to be created by a Black person who was enslaved at a Georgia plantation in the 1840s or 50s.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Participants gather for Marla Jackson’s presentation of a quilt about the Civil War and Quantrill’s Raid that she and students in her textile academy program created.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Jackson discusses a quilt made by her and her students about the Civil War and Quantrill’s Raid.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Marla Jackson

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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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