When you start talking about race and racism in this country, it’s not uncommon to find that people, even black people, get extremely uncomfortable. It’s too painful. It’s in the past. Things aren’t like that anymore. Why does it always have to be about race? No, it doesn’t always have to be about race; but when necessary conversations are neglected just so people can feel comfortable, these issues are never resolved and we run the risk of repeating our heinous history.
It is with this sentiment in mind that Indianapolis artist, Lashawnda Crowe Storm, and several others, started The Lynch Quilt Project, nearly 10 years ago. The project “explores history and ramifications of racial violence, specifically lynching, in the United States through the textile tradition of quilting.” So far, six quilts have been made, exploring the lynching phenomenon from different perspectives. The first and most impactful includes an image of a woman named Laura Nelson who was lynched in Okemah, Oklahoma on May 25, 1911.
In an interview with The Indianapolis Star, Lashawnda explains why she made the quilt this way.
My perception is it’s very easy to kind of digest something like this when it’s little and it’s manageable and it’s in a little book and you can put somewhere and walk away from it. It’s very different when you encounter this. And here is a woman that I specifically made her as close to my height as possible, which is 5 foot 8, and then it becomes a real woman. And it changes the dialogue in many ways because then you have to really focus on the fact, wow this is a woman. And you can see in the photograph that she was married so then what does that mean? Did she lose her family.
Upon further research you see that Laura was hanged with her son Lawrence who was 15 or 16 years old at the time. There are several stories about why they were hanged but, according to Wikipedia, which the Lynch Quilt Project references on their site, Laura, her husband Austin, their son and possibly a baby girl were taken into custody after an Okemah sheriff visited their home, investigating the theft of a cow. During this time, Lawrence shot the sheriff and he bled to death. Laura was the first to grab the gun and both she and her son were charged with murder. Her husband pled guilty to larceny and was sent to another prison. Laura, Lawrence and maybe a young baby girl were sent to prison to await trial.
They would never get their day in court. At midnight, a group of men kidnapped Laura and Lawrence from their cells and hung them from a bridge over the North Canadian River, about six miles away from Okemah. In July of that same year, the NAACP said that Laura had been raped before she was hanged. Other reports say that the baby Laura had with her, between the ages of 1-2, survived the attack and was taken in by people who witnessed the lynching and lived nearby.
According to the Lynch Quilt Project’s website, Crowe Storm and the community that helped her construct this piece decided to use quilting to detail these atrocities because: “Quilting is about piecing together remnants of fabric and lost history, reclaiming tossed garments and forgotten lives, stitching together all of these fragments into a whole cloth that reflects a more balanced and total view of history, revealing multiple truths along the way.”
We may never know exactly what happened to Laura Nelson and the 4,742 other known individuals who were lynched in the United States between 1888 and 1968, but The Lynch Quilt project and our own research and remembrance will make sure that their names and stories aren’t ignored or forgotten in American history.
To learn more about and donate time, resources or talent to The Lynch Quilt Project, visit their website here.