The Power of Dreams-Martha Ann Ricks-From Slavery to Windsor Castle
This lady was determination personified. She was born a slave in Tennessee about 1817 (her birth year is not recorded but estimated by piecing together other data), the daughter of slaves. Her father was George Erskine and her mother’s name was Hagar which I find prophetic. The Bible story of Hagar shows a strong lady who suffered much heartache and traveled many lands.
Martha Ann’s father was a man who loved God and in his free time attended church regularly, learning all he could about the Bible and the Lord. Since slaves were not allowed to read and write, his only option was to learn from listening to others. Somehow he indeed learned to read and write well enough to study the Bible.
The dedication of George Erskine was noticed by two theologians who decided to purchase him and they did just that. But their intent was not to perpetuate the practice of slavery. They were opposed to slavery and wanted to help George learn and study religion. He was diligent in his studies and became an ordained minister in 1818 when he was 39 years old.
Dr. Erskine determined that his seven children would not live and die in the fields as slaves. He worked and saved every penny so he could buy his family’s freedom, securing the funds in an old red box. As he went throughout Tennessee preaching at black churches and the few white ones that allowed him to enter, he told of his desire to free his wife and children. The congregations sometimes took up collections to assist with the money he needed. Finally he had saved $2,400 and purchased his own family, ensuring their safety and family unity.
During his travels, George Erskine heard about a radical new movement whose mission was to return former slaves back to Africa. This was the American Colonization Society, who sometimes bought slaves just to free them and return them to their homeland. Records show that over 19,000 black people were repatriated to Liberia through the efforts of this organization. These include freeborn, manumitted, and victims recaptured from slaving ships that had kidnapped them from their homes. George made contact with the ACS who helped him make plans and in 1830, he was able to leave America and take his family to Liberia.
Martha Ann quickly settled into her new life in Liberia and felt secure because she watched British ships patrolling the coastline to prevent slavers from stealing people and taking them to America. Queen Victoria had ordered the ships to remain there and watch out for the people who lived near the coastline. So Martha went about her business in the market and became a homemaker, wife to Zion Harris who may have come with the family from America.
Martha Ann’s mother, father, grandmother and sister died from a fever that swept through the country, devastating many families. But she was still comforted by the knowledge that she was not a slave and she knew Queen Victoria was instrumental in maintaining that freedom. She saw a picture of the Queen in a newspaper and determined to thank her personally.
So, like her father, Martha Ann began to save money. A trip to England would cost a lot of money and she had almost none. But Martha Ann was a wonderful seamstress and quilter, having learned the art from her mother. She made and sold socks and other items. Martha also taught at the mission along with her husband. One time native tribesmen attacked the mission and Martha reloaded the guns while the men fought off the attackers. The leader was killed and the renegades scattered, never to return.
Later, Zion died and Martha was alone for a long time until she met and married Henry Ricks who owned a farm where he raised coffee, ginger and cotton. Martha worked hard, raising and selling animals as well as fine silk stockings and other items she sewed. All along, she saved pennies so she could go to England and meet the Queen.
After learning that every visitor was expected to present the Queen with a gift, Martha decided to make a quilt. She got an idea for the design by looking at the coffee fields outside her door. It showed a coffee tree in full bloom, featuring over 300 embroidered leaves and dozens of red coffee berries situated above a tree trunk. Martha worked on the quilt for twenty five years!
The years passed slowly but Martha never gave up her dream. She faithfully prayed for God to help her and to give her ideas to generate the necessary money she needed for her trip to England. She believed that God was inspiring her to make the journey. Though her husband, friends and family laughed and made fun of her dream, Martha remained strong and focused. She considered Queen Victoria to be a friend and protector of blacks, one who worked to prevent and abolish slavery in America and throughout the world.
Martha Ann became an old lady who was once again a widow when another widow made her acquaintance. This was Mrs. Jane Roberts whose husband had been the first President of Liberia! She had heard about Martha Ann’s quilt and wanted to see it. Once she heard the story and Martha’s lifelong dream, she helped make it a reality.
Mrs. Roberts had political connections in Liberia and in England and the right people received correspondence. A formal invitation was issued from the royal palace requesting the former slave woman to attend the Queen of England. Martha Ann sailed to England and was given a private tour of Windsor Castle, then was presented at court on July 16, 1892. She was 76 years old and had saved pennies for more than 50 years to make the dream come true.
Martha Ann actually shook hands with Queen Victoria and they had a long conversation. Then the quilt was unfolded and presented for the Queen’s inspection. She loved it and appreciated it even more because she herself was an excellent knitter and embroidery expert.
The Queen was so taken by Martha Ann Ricks that she sent a Royal Escort to see her safely back in Liberia. Many of the people who laughed at Martha’s dream were waiting at the dock to cheer her when she returned. They were no longer laughing.
- Martha Ann Rick's needlework was mentioned at the Second National Fair of Monrovia in 1858
- Martha's Coffee Tree quilt was exhibited at the Chicago Illinois Columbian Exposition Fair in 1893.
- A second quilt was made by Martha and gifted to AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, the first black army chaplain and appointed by President Abraham Lincoln.
- The second quilt was on display at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in the Negro building in 1895.
- Booker T. Washington was at the fair and likely saw the quilt.
- The original quilt has been misplaced and cannot be located.