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Michigan artist’s “Strange Fruit” quilt remembers the thousands lost to lynching


For six years now, the Detroit Unity Temple has held a quilt exhibit in February. Many of the quilts – but not all – are tributes to African-American history. This year a quilt that’s getting a lot of attention is called “Strange Fruit."

April Shipp is the artist who made the quilt. She joined Stateside today to explain the project.

On the Start of "Strange Fruit"

"The quilt actually started with an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show. She had on her show an author, her name is Kathleen Thompson and she wrote a book called Faces of Our Past, a beautiful book about African-American history, and women in history, and photographs of us in history. I happened to be flipping through the book, I was in the bookstore, looking through the book and there was one photograph that shocked me. It was a photograph of a mother and her son who were lynched in Oklahoma. It was May 25, 1911 and they were lynched over the North Canadian River. At that time, I did not know that they lynched women. I had never seen a photograph of a lynched woman, just men for the most part. So, I searched for who this person was, because the caption said “unidentified woman and child." That bothered me, that this person was murdered, and no one knew who she was.

"Her name was Laura Nelson, she was around 33 years old when she was murdered and her son’s name was  L.D. Nelson, and he was about 14. They were accused of stealing a fowl or livestock. The sheriff came to their house and I believe that her son, who was 14, shot the sheriff and they both said that they shot the sheriff to not have them both be arrested. It didn’t work. They’re both arrested, they were taken to jail, and the mob came to get them from jail. Forty men at night, she was raped, and they were lynched over this bridge. And when I saw that it troubled me so, I just couldn’t believe they would murder women like this and without a trial. The mob was your judge, your jury, and executioner."

About the color composition and material selection for "Strange Fruit"

"The quilt is comprised of different textures and shades of black because, you know, all black is not black. I have some silks, some satins, some polyester, some wools, cotton, corduroy denim, I’ve used in this particular quilt. And that was to represent the person’s status in life. You could be a sharecropper or a congressperson or someone returning from the war and be murdered in this fashion.

"The names are embroidered on the quilt in gold thread symbolizing that they are all precious in the eyes of God. At the top of the quilt, it is dedicated to Ida B. Wells, who was a journalist who fought tirelessly for anti-lynching laws in this country because they weren’t illegal."

Where Shipp hopes to see "Strange Fruit" go next

"The goal is to get it to the Smithsonian in D.C. Right now, I store it. It’s almost 20 years old. It’s time for me to give this over to the public. And I really want to take it there. "

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