The BBC World Service will air this weekend a mini-documentary about a woman born in slavery, who later migrated to Liberia with her family and there became famous through her talent for making quilts.
In this documentary, Beryl Dennis from Virginia, USA, goes in search of a long-lost quilt her relative, Martha Ann Erskine Ricks, made for the British Queen Victoria. It uncovers the remarkable tale of how, 125 years ago, a former slave came to meet the most powerful woman in the world.
Martha was born into slavery in Tennessee, USA, in 1817, but aged 13, after her father secured the family’s freedom, they migrated to Liberia as part of the American Colonization Society’s initiative which believed newly freed slaves would face a better future in Africa.
In Liberia, Martha established a reputation as an accomplished needlewoman especially as a maker of quilts, a tradition brought over by the settlers. And ever since Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838, Martha was fascinated by her and determined to meet her. Finally, aged 76, Martha was able to travel to London to meet the Queen. She took with her a hand-stitched quilt in the design of a coffee tree as a thank you for her role in the abolition of slavery.
Newspapers of the time followed the story of their meeting, and Aunt Martha – as she is respectfully known – made an impression on Queen Victoria, who noted in her diary that she had a ‘kind face’. There’s even a photograph of Martha in London’s National Portrait Gallery, but the Coffee Tree Quilt seems to have disappeared.
In the US – now the home of the Dennis family – the documentary features accounts of Aunt Martha’s charm and 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 and talk of Martha Ricks with great affection as their inspirational Coffee Tree Queen.
The documentary also features President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who revived the tradition of giving quilts as diplomatic gifts. She discusses why it was so important for her to help preserve this uniquely Liberian tradition.
In an ironic coincidence on Friday, June 30, President Sirleaf presented a handmade Liberian quilt to United States Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of the 30th Congressional District of Texas, as a gift. 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.
During the presentation of the quilt to Congresswoman Johnson, Liberia’s Deputy Chief of Protocol, Mrs. Ethel Toles, gave a brief history behind the use of hand-woven quilts as a presidential gift in Liberia. According to Mrs. Toles, the practice dates back to the 1800s during the era of Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who used quilts hand-woven by a group of women as gifts.
Looking for Martha’s Quilt will air on the BBC World Service on Sunday, July 9th and is available online at www.bbc.co.uk/worldserviceradio.