This unfinished quilt has ties to Nicodemus, a Kansas town settled by African Americans after the Civil War.
African Americans faced difficult conditions in the South during the 1870s. Hundreds became known as "Exodusters" because they left the southern states in a large movement, or exodus. Many of them looked to Kansas for opportunities because of its free-state reputation.
Nicodemus is the best-known Exoduster settlement. This western Kansas town and the surrounding rural community were established by a group of freed blacks from Kentucky. The first wave of settlers arrived in 1877, with many more following in subsequent decades. Nicodemus thrived in the late 19th century, and by 1910 the town had a population of nearly 600 African Americans.
This quilt top was passed down in an Exoduster family that settled in Nicodemus. It was made by either Amanda Lewis or her daughter, Mary Jane. Amanda first came to Kansas with her husband and children during the 1880s, settling near Concordia. She had lived as a slave in Kentucky before the Civil War, and afterward moved to Missouri where Mary Jane was born in 1866.
Mary Jane most likely made the quilt top. She married Robert "Graves" Scruggs in 1889, and the couple settled in Nicodemus where they farmed and had two children. Robert also worked as a teamster, driving a freight wagon from Nicodemus to Stockton (about 20 miles). Eventually the Scruggs family owned 720 acres of land.
The quilt top's fine craftsmanship contradicts the notion held by some historians that 19th century quilts made by blacks used simple techniques and designs with an African aesthetic. It features appliquéd red and yellow roses and pomegranates in a variation of the pattern sometimes called Love Apple. Red, green and white appliqué quilts were popular throughout much of the 1800s, although the synthetic dyes in the green fabric on this quilt top post-date 1875.
Mary Jane's daughter, Ola Scruggs Wilson, inherited the top from her mother. It later was purchased from Ola's estate and donated to the Kansas Museum of History.
Today the town of Nicodemus is a National Historic Site. It is the only remaining all-black town west of the Mississippi River.
Entry: Nicodemus Quilt
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: October 2010
Date Modified: April 2015
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.