Martha Ann Ricks:
Domestic Patriot

Martha Ann RicksMartha Ann Erskine was born a slave in Tennessee, but her father purchased the entire family and moved them to Liberia in 1830. She was first married to Zion Harris with whom she had traveled from Tennessee. In 1848, she and her husband traveled with the family of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Liberia's first president, from the Harris home in Clay Ashland, Liberia to the United States and England, where the Liberians were well-received. After Zion Harris's death, she married Henry Ricks. An industrious farm woman who raised turkeys, ducks, and sheep, she won a prize for her stockings, made of Liberian cotton silk, at an 1858 agricultural fair. Deeply committed to Liberia and proud of her family's prosperity there, she also admired Queen Victoria of England, perhaps based on her visit to that country. For some twenty-five years, she worked on an intricate cotton silk quilt depicting a Liberian coffee tree in bloom that she hoped to present to the Queen.1 The quilt design had over three hundred pointed green leaves with bright red coffee berries, all hand appliqued onto a white background with a center tree trunk.

By the 1890s, Liberians believed they had succeeded in proving their abilities as thrifty, enterprising purveyors of Western civilization and American culture. In 1892, the elderly Martha Erskine Ricks embarked from Liberia to England and, in London, joined forces with Jane Rose Roberts, widow of Joseph Roberts. Through the aid of Liberian ambassador Edward Blyden, Martha Ricks gained an audience with Queen Victoria and presented her with the quilt at Windsor Castle. It was surely a personal triumph for the elderly black women, born in Virginia and Tennessee, who had advanced so conspicuously in Liberia. But it was among the last public acts of the founding generations.2 The arc of progress in Liberia peaked in at about this time, as Liberia found itself in debt to foreign nations, unable to defend its borders against European encroachment, and unable to find either a cash crop or sufficient capital to develop natural resources alone. The sturdy pioneer spirit of Martha Ann Ricks, so commendable in its day, was not adequate for the realities of the twentieth century.

Marie Tyler-McGraw
May 1, 2008

End Notes

  1. Newman, "Emergence of Liberian Women," 233. The material used was a product of the cotton silk tree native to Liberia, interwoven with cotton, according to Kyra Hicks, "Martha Erskine Ricks, Nineteenth-Century Quiltmaker," http//www.anyonecanflyfoundation.org/library/Hicks_on_Ricks_essay.html, 6.
  2. "The Queen's African Visitor: Mrs. Ricks at Windsor," The Liberia Gazette Monrovia, Sept. 8, 1892, reprinted from the London Daily Graphic July 18, 1892. Thanks to Svend Holsoe for clipping.

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