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‘The people on my quilt didn’t get funerals’: 10-ft quilt at ArtPrize honors victims of lynching

Detroit artist creates quilt with the names of 5,000 Black people who were lynched between 1865 and 1965.
Strange Fruit quilt pic 3.jpg
Strange Fruit quilt pic 4.jpg
Posted at 7:47 PM, Sep 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-30 20:22:57-04

MICHIGAN — When April Shipp heard about the killing of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed in his car while reaching for his gun permit in the summer of 2016, she said she was “troubled in her spirit.”

So, she began to sew by hand. A lot.

“I thought to myself, 'I didn’t know what else to do,'” Shipp said during an interview with FOX 17 last week at her home in the Detroit area. “As a mother I have a son who has a car, who drives. I have seven brothers who have cars who drive.”

She too drives. However, sewing brings her peace, she said. It always has.

“Forty years quilt making, it is my passion,” Shipp said. “I find such joy in the cloth, such joy in the fabric. I can spend hours in a fabric store meandering the aisles, touching everything in sight.”

Throughout the years she’s created quilts that reflect the current events of the day, she said. She’s made one of former President Barack Obama, one of the late Nelson Mandela around the time that he died and one of a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and his body washed ashore in Turkey a few years ago.

She said if a story touches her, she’ll make a quilt about it. One story that’s made a significant impact on her life is now on display at the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives.

It's called Strange Fruit: A Century of Lynching and Murder, 1865–1965.

“April’s quilt is our signature piece. It’s the first thing that people come to see when they come into the ArtPrize exhibit that we have here called Fab Five,” said GRAAMA Curator George Bayard during an interview at the museum on Wednesday. “[It’s] five fabulous fabric artists. We picked them from all over the state, all over the world. Actually, we have some international pieces. But, they come right in and the first thing they’re drawn to are all the names.”

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Shipp’s 10-foot, 12-pound black quilt is filled with 5,000 names, embroidered in gold, of the Black men, women and children who died by lynching between the years of 1865 and 1965.

She considers it to be her life’s work.

“The people on my quilt didn’t get funerals. No one brought them flowers. No one came and sang any songs over their bodies,” Shipp said. “They were burned to death. They were lynched. They were murdered. They were shot. So, I want [viewers] to look at it as a memorial for people who have been murdered in this most horrific way.”

Visitors did.

Bayard said as soon as ArtPrize opened on Sept. 16, 800–900 people viewed it per hour for the first few days.

On Wednesday, FOX 17 viewed the quilt and noticed that people walked up close to it, reading each name one by one and stopping at the Michigan section of the quilt.

“I think when you see it and you see the names, you have your own reaction,” Bayard said. “One of the reactions is always, ‘Wow, I’m glad Michigan only had two people lynched [and] 27 that they couldn’t identify.'”

Shipp said she believes the unidentified people stem from the Detroit Race Riots of 1943.

“The most horrific state to me in my research was Louisiana,” Shipp said. “Louisiana had 993 unidentified people. Let that settle in for a minute. We’re talking about 993 mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews.”

Shipp said she began creating the quilt in 1999. She researched every person from the correct spelling of their names to the places where they were lynched to the stories behind them.

“It started with an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. She had some authors on who had a book titled Faces of Our Past, and in that book there was a photograph of a woman and her son who had been lynched. To that point I never knew they lynched women or children. I didn’t know that,” Shipp recalled. “So, when I saw that, I began to cry in the bookstore and say, ‘Father God, someone somewhere needs to do something about this terrible crime.’”

At that moment, she said she felt God ask her to make a quilt. Shipp initially declined considering the amount of time it would take and that she worked full time at Chrysler.

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However, eventually, she felt compelled to make it. So, she did and it took three years, sewing it day and night.

“I would get off work and come home and sew and make dinner and come back and sew and give the kids baths and come back and sew, for three years,” Shipp said. “I would sit there and I would cry while working on it. So, it has my tears on it. I pricked my fingers, so it has my blood on it. Of course I have my sweats, so it has my DNA. It is a part of who I am.”

Since the quilt was completed, it’s traveled the world being shown in museums and exhibits and photographed in magazines and books. No matter where it went, it evoked emotion from all who saw it.

“We have all types of reactions to it. Everything from they just run around and walk out to people breaking down in tears to people trying to find their own relatives,” Bayard said. “It’s a wonderful piece to have here for ArtPrize. It actually starts dialogue with a lot of people.”

Shipp’s mission now is to find Strange Fruit a permanent home. She’s reached out to the Smithsonian and the Eli Museum. Both declined. However, she’s determined to find them a final resting place.

“I’ve housed them for so long and I’m going to cry. Lord, I’m going to cry,” Shipp said with tears filling her eyes. “I feel like I want them to have rest. I want them to have rest, and I feel like until they have a permanent home they’re not resting.”

***NOTE: Strange Fruit will remain on display at the GR African American Museum on Monroe Center until ArtPrize closes on Sunday, Oct. 3.***

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