Elijah McClain Among Victims of Racial Violence Honored With Portrait Patchwork on Quilt

Cross-stitched images of racial violence victims over the decades can be seen on quilts at Mississippi's Jackson State University as a part of the Stitch Their Names Memorial Project.

A group of about 75 stitchers in and out of the U.S. teamed up to depict 116 people in personalized ways. For example, Elijah McClain, who was killed by police in Colorado in 2019, is shown playing the violin next to a cat, as he taught himself to play multiple instruments and was an animal lover.

The project also created a website that includes biographies of each victim pictured in the quilt, so readers can learn about who the victims were in life. The quilts are available for public viewing at the historically Black university on weekdays until December 17.

An Oregon math teacher named Holli Johannes conceptualized the project in July 2020 as the country grappled with the police killing of George Floyd, who is also included in the quilt.

Ebony Lumumba, department chair and associate professor of English at Jackson State, told the Associated Press quilting is both a form of activism and a history that "sometimes supersedes what can be written down."

"That's significant for our community because we have been denied the privilege of being documented for so many centuries and so this is one of the ways that we resist that," she said.

Stich Their Names Memorial Project, quilts
Two hand-crafted quilts, stitched together by 75 artists from the U.S. and beyond, are part of the Stitch Their Name Memorial Project, which honors 116 African Americans who lost their lives to racial violence. Above, the two quilts are photographed while on display at the Margaret Walker Center on the Jackson State University campus, November 30, 2021, in Jackson, Mississippi. Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

Long after James Earl Green was killed, Myrtle Green-Burton wouldn't let anyone wear her 17-year-old son's high school track team jacket.

Green, an aspiring Olympic runner, was supposed to receive the green and yellow coat at his graduation in Mississippi half a century ago. It became a symbol of his life—and her loss, said his sister Gloria Green-McCray.

"She just kept it until it dry-rotted because that was all she really had to remember his dream—his vision," Green-McCray said of her mother.

A cross-stitch portrait of Green wearing his track jacket is now included with 115 others in a quilting project dedicated to memorializing lives lost to racial violence in the U.S.

James Earl Green and 21-year-old Jackson State student Phillip Lafayette Gibbs were fatally shot on the Jackson State campus during a violent police response to a protest against racial injustice in 1970. Green was not a student at the historically Black university but was walking through the campus on his way home from his grocery store job.

Twelve more people were injured. No officer ever faced criminal charges.

On a visit to Jackson State's campus last week to see the portrait, Green-McCray, now in her late 60s, recalled her older brother's ambitions of running in college and then in the Olympics. In the weeks leading up to his death, graduating and getting that track jacket were all he could talk about, she said.

"He didn't get the chance to wear it," she said, reaching out and running her finger across the tiny portrait.

Gibbs—killed in Jackson the same night as Green—is depicted in the quilt wearing a gray suit. He was studying to be a lawyer.

Green-McCray said she hadn't seen a quilt made since she was a little girl—the ones stitched by the women who raised her. She remembered how quilting was a form of storytelling for them. Her mother would piece together quilts using pieces of aprons, hats and dresses from her grandmother.

"Each little piece represents something—each piece had a significant meaning," she said. "It was not just a piece of cloth, but it was a piece of history, a piece of that person."

Green-McCray said the quilts would evoke memories, even of a time before she was born—a reminder of "the struggle of survival."

"It's like you re-live it," she said. "My mother came from a family of sharecroppers, old slaves, and I can remember the history."

Green-McCray said if people don't learn about history, it repeats itself. When her brother was killed, everyone asked her, "'Do you think this will ever happen again?'"

"At that time, we was thinking it was going to soon end, and it will never happen again," she said. "Now today, you see them saying 'Black Lives Matter,' and that really grieves my spirit. We've come a long way, but we still got such a long way to go."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jackson State University, Gloria Green-McCray, Ebony Lumumba
Gloria Green-McCray, sister of James Earl Green, who along with Phillip Lafayette Gibbs was killed by Mississippi Highway Patrolmen in 1970 on the campus of Jackson State University, visited Jackson State University to see a cross-stitch portrait of Green, which is now included with 115 others in the Stitch Their Names Memorial Project, dedicated to memorializing lives lost to racial violence in the U.S. Above, Green-McCray, right, discusses the importance quilting plays in the African American community with Ebony Lumumba, left, department chair and associate professor of English at Jackson State, November 30, 2021, in Jackson, Mississippi. Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo