Monday, January 16, 2012

Aprons and Buttons - Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

It was July, 1967.  I was 20 years old, single, and was living through the Detroit riots of 1967.  Buildings were burning, and snipers were shooting people through windows and moving cars.  I couldn’t get out of my apartment after dark or even stand in front of the windows for fear of being shot.  As I tried to sleep, I remember announcements on the radio how many deaths had occurred hour by hour . . .   No one could drive on the streets at night in that neighborhood.  It wasn’t safe; it was a war zone.  At the conclusion of five days of rioting, 43 people lay dead, 1,189 injured, and over 7,000 people had been arrested.

The origins of urban unrest in Detroit were said to be rooted in a multitude of political, economic, and social factors including police abuse, lack of affordable housing, urban renewal projects, economic inequality, black militancy, and rapid demographic change.

For more than 200 years before the Civil War, 95% of blacks in the United States were slaves.  But after the war, and the release of slaves, African Americans stepped into a world of “black code” laws contrived to severely limit the rights of blacks and segregated them from whites, especially in the South.
They were separated at schools, theaters, taverns, and other public places.  So, Congress quickly responded to these laws in 1866 and seized the initiative in remaking the south.  Republicans wanted to ensure that with the remaking the south, freed blacks were made viable members of society.  But the strong southern legislatures finally gave in; in 1868 they repealed most of the laws that discriminated against blacks.

By the 1900’s the southern legislators carried segregation to the extremes.  Here are some of the years and states where it started:

  • 1914: Louisiana required separate entrances for blacks and whites.
  • 1915: Oklahoma segregated telephone booths.
  • 1920: Mississippi made it a crime to advocate or publish “arguments or suggestions in favor of social equalities or of interracial marriage between whites and Negro’s”.
  • Arkansas had segregation at racetracks.
  • Texas prohibited integrated boxing matches.
  •  Kentucky required separate schools, and also that no textbook that was issued to a black would ever be reissued or redistributed; they also prohibited interracial marriage.
  •  Georgia bared black ministers from performing a marriage between white couples. -
When the U.S. entered WW II the south was a fully segregated society.  Everything from schools, restaurants, hotels, train cars, waiting rooms, elevators, public bathrooms, colleges, hospitals, cemeteries, swimming pools, drinking fountains, prisons, and even churches were for whites or blacks but never for both.

In 1955 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was organized after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man.  King’s efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  There he expanded American values to include the vision of a color blind society and established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.  In 1964, he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means.

Then the epitome of racism shocked the world.  It was April 4, 1968.  By then I was 22 years old, married, and fixing my hair when I heard on the radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis.  You know how it is when you hear the news about an important event of history in the making, and you can see yourself at that time and feel the emotions of hearing that event as if for the first time.

He was posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004; Martin Luther King, Jr., Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.

So what does Martin Luther King, Jr., have to do with vintage aprons or buttons?  Our own History.
Now, as a collector and presenter of antique and vintage aprons and buttons, what are our thoughts about the stereotyped black mammies and their watermelon-eating children as embroidered or printed on these aprons?  Although some people are offended by them, it’s important to remember our history.  “People who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it,” said George Santayana.  Even Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, and Bill Cosby have huge collections of Black Americana.  Collecting is not condoning.  It’s remembering.  Personally, I would never advocate repulsive bogus reproductions of these vintage artifacts of time gone by, but I also am one to say I would knowingly be politically incorrect, if I am standing up for the Truth of History and all that is Sacred.   And although these reminders can be very painful, they can also be an inspiring testimony to the strength of the African American spirit in the face of discrimination and inequality.

I have not been able to find out (yet) who actually made and wore these vintage aprons, but I will continue to research the question.  If any of you have grandmothers who might know, PLEASE let me know.  Here are some amazing vintage aprons from my eclectic collection from an era [mostly] gone by, as well as a graciously loaned photo of a Martin Luther King, Jr., button from Sally Alsbury in Arkansas.


Again, from Sally Alsbury from Arkansas, here is an image of one of her Martin Luther King, Jr., modern commemorative buttons, apparently far and few between.... Thank you Sally!


A Delightful Children's Book:  Ma Dear's Aprons by Patricia C. McKissack, Illustrations by Floyd Cooper (An Anne Schwartz Book, Aladdin Paperbacks edition January 2000, Copyright 1997.

 To all my friends and family and followers out there in blog land, thank you for reading my articles about the art and history of aprons and buttons!  Make a Great Day!  Blessings, Dianne

References:  (Brown Vs. Bd. of Education),_Jr._Day   -   "Black Americana on display at Blount library creating dialogue" by Lydia X. McCoy   -   "How to Collect Black Americana" by Marye Audet


  1. I totally agree that publishing information about textiles and other memorabilia related to Black history in America is not a form of promoting racial discrimination, it is a point of education. I have written extensively about topics of this kind on my own website, Quilter's Muse Publications. Thank you for posting this meaningful file. Patricia Cummings, quilt historian

  2. Thank you Patricia. I will look on your web site again to research a little more. If there is any information you can provide to me about who made and wore these types of aprons, I would appreciate it so much. Blessings from Dianne

  3. What wonderful pieces of American history!