A Quilt for a Queen: Martha Ricks


Martha Ricks, a simple farmer’s widow, made her way slowly off the morning train from London. She was a petite, seventy-six year old woman. She wore her finest Sunday suit and lace bonnet. She carried in her arms a bundle wrapped in brown paper and tied neatly with string. She gazed at the gathering crowd and inhaled deeply, savoring the moment. She spent fifty years anticipating and preparing for these next few hours. A tall, dark-skinned man in formal attire cupped his hand under her elbow to assist her to the awaiting transportation. They walked several feet before she had to step up into the ornate, open-top carriage. One of the footmen held her precious package while she sat down comfortably. The rest of those accompanying her settled in the second carriage.

Curious villagers, who had waited for the woman newspapers called an elderly Negress, applauded and shouted well wishes to her. Within moments, the team of horses started a dignified gait up the winding road leading to the large stone house on the distant hilltop. The locals called the residence Windsor Castle. Mrs. Ricks, hugging her bundle, called the house and its royal mistress the answers to her prayers.

Early Childhood

Martha Erskine was born a slave about 1817 on an Eastern Tennessee plantation. The exact date of her birth remains a secret of the past. Her father, George M. Erskine, was also a slave and born about 1779. Not much is known about his life as a slave except two facts: 1) He loved his family enough to work years to purchase them out of slavery, and 2) He impressed others with his love of God. George Erskine had at least seven children by his wife, Hagar, who was also a slave.

Dr. Isaac Anderson (1780 – 1857), an opponent of slavery, and Abel Person, one of his theology students, purchased George Erskine out of slavery in 1815 to allow George to also study religion. At the time, Dr. Anderson was the pastor of New Providence Presbyterian Church in Maryville, Tennessee.{footnote}New Providence Presbyterian Church was founded in 1786. The church still exists today at 703 West Broadway Avenue, Maryville, Tennessee 37801-4715. Dr. Isaac Anderson is buried in the nearby church cemetery. (www.NewProvidencePres.org accessed July 27, 2004.){/footnote} The church membership was composed of both white and black members. The black members, some who were slaves, sat in the back pews. George must have learned to read and write while a slave because he commenced his religious study as soon he was free, according to Presbyterian records. George was licensed to be a Presbyterian minister in 1818, when he was about 39 years old. He spent the next twelve years preaching within and outside Tennessee to both white and black congregations. Often special collections were taken up for the purpose of purchasing his family out of slavery.

AndersonDuring his travels, George learned of the American Colonization Society. The American Colonization Society{footnote}Debra Newman Ham, editor. The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture. Web site, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/intro.html, accessed July 27, 2004.{/footnote} (ACS) was founded in 1817 as the “American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States.” The organization’s mission was to return former slaves back to Africa. Later the ACS assisted blacks specifically freed for the purpose of repatriation as well as Africans previously captured for slavery to return to Africa. There were many auxiliary branches of the ACS, which funded voyages to Liberia. The ACS “proceeded and succeeded between 1822 and 1867 in assisting the repatriation to Liberia of 19,000 black people, among them 4,540 freeborn, 7,000 manumitted slaves and more than 5,700 recaptured from slaving vessels.”{footnote}D. Elwood Dunn, Amos J. Beyan, and Carl P. Burrowes, eds., Historical Dictionary of Liberia, 2nd Ed (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2001), 19.{/footnote} In 1830, after securing his family from slavery, George moved his family, including 13-year-old Martha, to Liberia with the assistance of the ACS. George was to be an agent for the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions.

Needleart Skills Transfer to Liberia

Isaac Anderson, who purchased Martha Ricks’ father, George Erskine, out of slavery. Photo courtesy of Maryville College

The Erskine family, consisting of George, his wife, children and mother, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to Liberia on January 15, 1830, on the brig Liberia. Besides the Erskine family, forty-eight other free and former slaves, from Virginia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, also sailed.{footnote}Roll of Emigrants – Brig Liberia. Christine’s Genealogy Web site http://www.ccharity.com/liberia/brigliberia1830.htm accessed July 27, 2004.{/footnote} They all arrived in Monrovia forty-two days later. The American Colonization Society provided at least five acres of land in the settlement of Caldwell to the Erskine family to build a home and cultivate food.

Early emigrants to Liberia, former slaves and free blacks, brought a variety of skills to their new home.

Seventy-eight occupations were listed in the 1843 census, including blacksmith, carpenter, druggist, farmer, housekeeper, laundress, merchant, millwright, missionary, nurse, physician, sail maker, schoolteacher, seaman, shoemaker, stonemason, wheelwright, and midwife.{footnote}Tom W. Shick, Behold the Promised Land: A History of Afro-American Settler Society in Nineteenth-Century Liberia (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 145.{/footnote} Needlecraft occupations included hatter/ milliner, seamstress, tailor and weaver. Martha Erskine probably learned to sew and quilt from her mother, Hagar, or her grandmother, Martha Gains. Dr. Gladys-Marie Fry’s landmark Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South describes quiltmaking of 19th century Black-American women. Fry asserts that slaves were required to make quilts for public (for the slave owners) using Euro-American quiltmaking traditions. For private use, however, slave quilters “found inventive ways to disguise within the quilt improvisational forms and elements of African cosmology and mythology.”{footnote}Gladys-Marie Fry, Stitched From the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Dutton Studio Books, 990), 7.{/footnote} The Bible Quilts of former slave Harriet Powers (1837 – 1911) are examples of universal symbols incorporated into privately used quilts. Fry investigated two types of quiltmaking by slave women: applique quilts (cloth is sewn on top of another piece of fabric) and patchwork quilts (cloth pieces are sewn side-by-side). She found that slaves learned quilt patterns from the plantation mistress and from each other. Quilt patterns for personal use included both learned patterns as well as original designs from the slave’s own imagination or observations of nature.{footnote}Fry, Stitched From the Soul, 45 – 46.{/footnote}

The Liberia National Fairs – Needleart Prizes

Ten years after Independence, the Liberian Congress appropriated $500 to be spent towards the hosting of a national fair. President Stephen Allen Benson (1816 – 1865), a farmer who was born free in Dorchester County, Maryland, suggested a fair to encourage agriculture, “home industry” and stimulate interest in cotton farming. Congress passed an Act providing that items of “Agriculture, Manufacture, or Art, showing forth the skill, industry and ingenuity of the citizens of this Republic, or the aborigines of the country, and animal or animals raised, may be exhibited and sold at the said National Fair.”{footnote}The Report of the Committee of Adjudication, of the National Fair, of the Republic of Liberia (Monrovia, 1858), 5.{/footnote}

All, settlers and indigenous citizens, were invited to participate in the Fair. This contrasted with fair participation in the United States where African Americans were either prohibited from attending, allowed to only attend specific days, or restricted to separate display areas or buildings. At times, African Americans held fairs especially designed for black participation.{footnote}“The Colored Fair is Open: A Grand Parade Preceded the Opening. Some Interesting Relics Shown,” Dallas Daily Times Herald, September 1, 1900, p.8. The Colored Fair and Cotton Exposition displays included “quilts and cushions and fancy doilies and what-not, all showing the colored people’s love for gay colors.” Zach Hughes displayed a homespun quilt made by his grandmother.{/footnote} More than ninety-one monetary awards were granted at the Fair. Besides the farming and manufacturing prizes, visual and needlearts were highlighted. The Official Report of the Fair emphasized the participation of both adult, and young women, especially for their skill with needle and thread.

Martha Erskine Ricks, now a forty-one year old married woman, also entered the Fair competition.

CoffeeTreeQuiltMartha, her husband, Henry, and three stepsons, lived on a farm in Clay-Ashland where they grew coffee, cane sugar, ginger and cotton on the farm. The settlement was named in honor of U.S. Senator and ACS supporter Henry Clay (1777 – 1852) and was situated on the St. Paul’s River, about 20 miles northeast of Monrovia. Martha entered a pair of silk cotton socks made from fibers of the cotton silk tree into the competition at the Second National Fair. The silk cotton tree grew wild in Liberia and reached heights of 80 to 100 feet.{footnote}“Report of the Committee of Adjudication of the Second National Fair,” African Repository (1850 – 1892), November 1859, 339.{/footnote} Pods from the silk cotton tree enclosed silky, odorless, waterproof fibers that were woven with cotton to make a fabric. The socks Martha made were so extraordinary that Fair Chairman Mr. A. P. Davis mentioned them in his official report of the Fair to President Stephen Benson. The list of competition winners and prize amounts appears to be lost in history now. But, the Second National Fair, like the first one, was a success for the country. The Liberian government clearly supported needlecraft by its citizens.

Martha Ricks’ Quilt for a Queen

The “Coffee Tree Quilt” Drawing by Faith Ringgold. Copyright 2007 Anyone Can Fly Foundation, Englewood, NJ. Do Not Reproduce Without Written Permission

One can imagine Martha Ricks’ delight to have her handmade silk cotton socks mentioned in the Official Record of the Second National Fair. In years to come, her handcrafted works would be noted in newspapers in Liberia, England, and the United States. Martha Ricks deeply desired to see Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) once in her lifetime. Mrs. Ricks read about Queen Victoria in the Liberian Herald when the young princess ascended the British throne in 1837. She thought highly of the monarch, who was just a year or two younger than herself. For years Mrs. Ricks could see British naval ships patrolling the West Coast of Africa to prevent slaver traders from capturing Africans and sending them to the West Indies or to the United States as slaves. As a result, Mrs. Ricks wanted to see for herself the woman she thought of as a good Christian and a “friend of the slave.”

Mrs. Ricks was a faithful woman. She prayed to God for the opportunity to see Queen Victoria and believed that God would grant this extraordinary request. Mrs. Ricks decided to take the queen a special gift. Quilts were popular home possessions in nineteenth century Liberia. And, after much consideration, Mrs. Ricks settled on making a quilt for the queen. She was inspired to design a quilt that reflected the beautiful land she saw daily. She designed the quilt featuring a coffee tree in full-bloom. Dr. Gladys Marie-Fry’s research into slave-made quilts noted “some of the most ingenious original [quilt] patterns were those which slaves adopted from their environment. Leaves were a particular favorite.”{footnote}Fry, Stitched From the Soul, 46.{/footnote} Black women emigrating from America to Liberia, like Mrs. Ricks, would have also brought their ability to create quilt patterns based on what was seen in nature.

Coffee was an important cash crop in Liberia. In fact, a particular coffee bean, the Coffea Liberica, was indigenous to the country. In the nineteenth century world market, Liberian coffee was as desired as twenty-first century Colombian coffee. The Liberian coffee tree grew about 10 – 20 feet high and bloomed with white flowers, followed by fruits containing the coffee seeds.

Joseph Jenkins Roberts. First president of Liberia. Photo from the Library of Congress

The Coffee Tree Quilt Mrs. Ricks designed had over 300 pointed green leaves with plump red coffee berries all delicately hand-appliquéd onto a white background. The quilt was composed of a center tree trunk extending the length of the quilt. Mrs. Ricks divided the background into four quadrants with a main branch in each quadrant attached to the center trunk. Dozens of leaves with coffee berries attached to minor branches in each of the quadrants. Scalloped appliquéd leaves and berries bordered the entire tree. She most likely spun, wove and dyed her own cloth using both cotton and fibers from the silk cotton tree. The size of the quilt was at least as large as our present-day queen-size quilts.

Mrs. Ricks’ neighbors knew of her desire to see Queen Victoria. And, they laughed. Even her husband laughed. For decades Mrs. Ricks held fast to her dream to see the woman she believed actively worked for the freedom of black people in America and Africa. She saved her pennies for the future voyage to England and she continued to hand-stitch her quilt. Sometime in the early 1890s, when Mrs. Ricks was in her 70s and widowed, Mrs. Jane Roberts (1819 – 1911), the widow of the first President of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, called on her at the farm in Clay-Ashland. Mrs. Roberts wanted to see the quilt Mrs. Ricks had made for the queen. Upon seeing the Coffee Tree Quilt, Mrs. Roberts agreed to help Mrs. Ricks travel to England. Mrs. Ricks used her pennies saved over decades to purchase passage on a ship leaving Monrovia, Liberia, to England. The London Times quoted Martha Ricks as saying, “I want to go to London and see the Queen. I know that I cannot speak to her, but I hope to see her passing along, and then I will return to my farm in Liberia and die contented. The Lord told me I should see the Queen, and I know I will.”{footnote}The London Times, July 13, 1892.{/footnote} Friends in England, including Liberian Ambassador Edward W. Blyden, whom Mrs. Jane Roberts contacted, interceded with Palace officials on behalf of Martha Ricks. As God had promised Mrs. Ricks, she would see the queen.

Palace officials telegraphed an invitation to Mrs. Ricks to visit Windsor Castle. Mrs. Ricks, Ambassador Blyden, Mrs. Roberts and others took a train from London to Windsor Saturday morning, July 16. The tall, handsomely dark-skinned Ambassador escorted the 76-year old Mrs. Ricks, who held the Coffee Tree Quilt tightly in her arms.

StephenAllenBensonMrs. Ricks and her company were given a tour of Windsor Castle and refreshments. Then, the moment Mrs. Ricks had prepared decades for arrived. She was presented to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. Also present were Edward, the Prince of Wales, his wife Alexandra, and their three daughters, Louise, Victoria, and Maude. Queen Victoria and Mrs. Ricks spent moments together talking quietly. Mrs. Ricks would have thanked and blessed the monarch for her work in providing protection to slaves. The queen would have asked about Mrs. Ricks’ life in Liberia. The bundle Mrs. Ricks wrapped in brown paper and neatly tied with string was given to a lady-in-waiting.

Martha Ann's Quilt 200
Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria tells the story of this article for children. You may obtain an autographed copy of Martha Ann’s Quilt For Queen Victoria by visiting www.BlackThreads.com or via email, Black.Threads@yahoo.com. The book costs $15.00, plus $5.00 for shipping. U.S. shipping only.

The package was untied. Two nearby pages unfurled the bundled Coffee Tree Quilt for the Royal Family to admire. Queen Victoria was accomplished at knitting and embroidery. She therefore would have appreciated the expert craftsmanship Mrs. Ricks exhibited. How extraordinary the afternoon must have felt to Martha Ricks to see her beloved Queen study the hand-stitched quilt. The British newspapers reported that the meeting between Queen Victoria and Mrs. Martha Ricks was a great success. The queen thanked Mrs. Ricks for the heartfelt visit and quilt by sending her back to Liberia with gifts and a Royal Escort.23

When Martha Ricks arrived back in Liberia in August 1892, many of her neighbors and family members who once laughed at her dreams of seeing Queen Victoria in person now greeted her as a heroine. According to one report, “a great concourse of people, men, women and children were at the wharf to greet … Martha, while Sunday school scholars sang a song of welcome.”

Quilts in Context of American Quilt History

MarthaAnnsQuiltMrs. Ricks is one of the few nineteenth century women, slave or free, black or white, to have her various needleworks documented on three different continents. Records in Africa first documented Mrs. Ricks’ stitches. Her silk cotton socks remain one of the few needlework items mentioned in the official record of the Second National Fair that took place in Monrovia, Liberia in 1858. Indeed, Mrs. Ricks was the only woman named in the multi-page Official Report. Publications in Europe recorded for posterity Mrs. Ricks’ stitches. The Coffee Tree Quilt gift to Queen Victoria was noted in various British newspapers. The quilt was shipped the following year to Chicago, Illinois, for exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition, which opened May 1, 1893.

Stephen Allen Benson, President of Liberia who called for the fair where Martha displayed her quilts. Photo from the Library of Congress

A second quilt by Mrs. Ricks would hang in Atlanta, Georgia, exhibited to another large fair audience two years later. AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1834 – 1915) became acquainted with Martha Ricks during one of his three mission trips (1891, 1893, and 1895) to Liberia. Bishop Turner, whom President Abraham Lincoln appointed as the first black army chaplain, encouraged American blacks to emigrate to Liberia. Mrs. Ricks may have met the Bishop at a Liberian church service. He may have even been invited to share a meal at her home.

How the two Christians met is lost to history now. But, they did meet because Mrs. Ricks made a duplicate Coffee Tree Quilt for Bishop Turner. In 1895, Bishop Turner shipped several items he collected in his trip to Liberia to Georgia for display at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in the Negro Building. One of the items shipped was the duplicate Coffee Tree Quilt. Remarkably, Mrs. Ricks’ needle-art skills would be showcased on three continents and admired by British Royalty, by thousands who attended major expositions in the US, and by her family and neighbors, who once laughed at her. Mrs. Ricks is still remembered and celebrated one hundred years after she stitched her last quilt.

By Kyra E. Hicks