June 13, 2024

Detroiter, interactive artist hails the Black quilting tradition ahead of Juneteenth workshop at WSU

A quarter-century ago, a historical tragedy drove April Anue Shipp to create a modern masterpiece.

Standing inside a Detroit bookstore back in 1999, Shipp was leafing through a collection of stories and images of Black women, when one especially grisly entry gripped her attention.

Shipp's signature quilt, "Strange Fruit," has been viewed by audiences across the country and will be the centerpiece of the Juneteenth exhibition at WSU.

“I came across a page that had a photograph of a mother and her son who’d been lynched over a bridge in Oklahoma in 1911,” she said. “When I saw this picture of this Black woman and her son, the picture shocked me because, on the bridge, there was a crowd of people — including women and children — watching this murder take place and gleefully smiling. She had been accused of stealing a cow. When the sheriff came to her house, shots were fired, and, according to the record, a white sheriff died. They arrested her and her son, who was about 15 at the time, but the townspeople got her out of jail that night. They brutally raped her and her son and took them to this bridge and shot and hung them.

“But what really got me,” Shipp continued, “was that the article listed her as ‘Unknown.’ Unknown! They knew who she was. But they never gave her a name.”

Moments later, as she sat in her car crying over the image, Shipp recalled a voice speaking to her.

“In that moment, I believe I heard the spirit of God say to me, ‘Find their names and make a quilt,’” she said. “I know it sounds crazy and farfetched — but this is my story.”

A relative novice at quilting at the time, Shipp said she resisted at first but eventually complied with the spiritual directive. Three years later, she had completed her largest quilt yet, a 10-foot-by-10-foot cloth mosaic listing the names of Black lynching victims from throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including Laura Nelson, the woman whose gruesome death Shipp saw depicted nearly 25 years ago. Dubbed “Strange Fruit: A Century of Lynching and Murder 1865 to 1965,” her quilt has been featured over the past two decades in exhibitions in Alabama, Chicago, New York, Indiana, Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and numerous other places.  

On June 17, in honor of Wayne State University’s Juneteenth celebration, Shipp will showcase “Strange Fruit” as part of Quilted Dreams: Stories of Freedom, an exhibit in the Student Center Building that will explore the long, rich tradition of quilting in African American culture. (The Juneteenth holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.) Shipp will also lead a hands-on quilting workshop designed to help craft a large “community quilt” to be displayed later while exploring ties between art, history, modern issues and personal narratives. 

Shipp's work has reflected the struggles of ordinary Americans and also celebrated luminaries such as President Barack Obama.

“Quilting is a time-honored cultural expression in the African American community and a powerful platform that captures the history of struggle, tragedy and triumph that makes our American journey distinct and unique,” said Donyale Padgett, WSU’s vice provost for inclusive excellence, whose office is sponsoring the exhibit. “April Anue Shipp and her work reflect not only our mastery of quilting as an art form but also illustrate the power of the tradition.”

An interactive artist and native Detroiter, Shipp has created more than 80 quilts over the course of her career, including pieces featuring women blues musicians, quotes from luminaries such as Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela, and personal messages and themes for assorted individual buyers and for charity auctions. 

“My wheelhouse is history,” said Shipp. “That’s my favorite kind of work to do. I like to create narrative quilts — quilts that tell stories. There’s a long history of African American women and quilt makers whose quilts, for the most part, tell the stories of our lives. I am proud to be a part of that tradition.”

For more about WSU’s Juneteenth observation, please visit events.wayne.edu/juneteenth.


Darrell Dawsey
Phone: 313-577-1204
Email: Darrell.Dawsey@wayne.edu

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