12 - 07
By Lisa Vives
Two women whose widely divergent paths converged in Windsor Castle when a finely embroidered quilt passed from one woman to the other are recalled in a new documentary aired on BBC radio this week.
One woman was Great Britain’s Queen Victoria. The other was Martha Ann Erskine Ricks, born in slavery in America and raised in Liberia where her quilt-making skill would grow and flourish.
The satin quilt, 9 feet square, carried by Martha Ricks, was embroidered with a coffee tree in full bloom, complete with red and green berries.
“She was a little woman but she had power,” said Evangeline B. Morris Dennis, surviving matriarch of the family. “In our family, everyone recalled Aunt Martha.” Born into slavery in 1817 in Tennessee, in 1830 Martha’s father George Erskine bought the family’s freedom Martha was 13 at the time, the family of nine moved to Liberia, West Africa.
Tragically, within a year, all but Martha and two brothers had died from fever.
Martha settled on a farm in Clay Ashland, which is today a quiet village located on the lush green banks of the St Paul River, where she became a farmer, growing her own vegetables, ginger, cocoa and coffee crops.
She also won prizes at national fairs for her silk stockings. She was skilled in the art of quilting – a tradition brought over from the South of America by settlers.
The documentary features accounts of Aunt Martha’s determination and of the letters she wrote describing life in Liberia, which are now kept in the Library of Congress.
Also featured are contemporary quilters in Liberia who are recreating the quilt of Martha Ricks with great affection.
Retiring President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf revived the tradition of giving quilts as diplomatic gifts. Last month, President Sirleaf presented a handmade Liberian quilt to U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of the 30th Congressional District of Texas. The quilt was presented during a reception held in President Sirleaf’s honor by the US Congresswoman, who earlier that evening presented the Liberian President with the Seal of Congressional Records.
“Aunt Martha really did inspire the women of Liberia to do quilting,” Evangeline Morris Dennis says of her ancestor. Martha Ricks was the great-aunt of Mrs Dennis’ mother.
The podcast can be heard on the BBC World Service Radio. http://www.bbc.co.uk/