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Equity

Stitch by stitch, a traveling quilt honors more than 100 Black people killed across America

Four Colorado needleworkers contributed tiny portraits, pieced into two quilts for the Stitch Their Names Memorial Project, which honors a small number of Black people who lost their lives.

Emily Vigneaux created cross-stitched portraits of of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, who were killed in East Cleveland, Ohio in November 2012. The Stitch Their Names Memorial Project, which creates handmade quilts in memorial of victims of racial violence across the U.S. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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Lauren Forsythe feels connected to the tiny cross-stitched memorial she created for Paul Childs, a 15-year-old boy with a developmental disability, who was shot and killed by a Denver police officer in 2003.

She thinks of Childs often, especially when she’s working with children with disabilities in her job as an elementary school psychologist in Denver.

“I felt lucky to be able to create something that brought him back, just for a little while, to peoples’ minds,” she said. “He was having a mental health break and his family lost him. The more I read about him, the more invested I felt, given that I work with kids like this.”

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The image of Childs, who in the portrait is wearing blue jeans and a striped shirt while standing next to a bicycle, is part of the Stitch Their Names Memorial, two large quilts composed of 116 cross-stitched portraits of Black people who were killed, in many cases, by police. 

Child psychologist Lauren Forsythe created this cross-stitched portrait of Paul Childs, a 15-year-old boy with a developmental disability who was shot and killed by a Denver police officer in 2003, for the Stitch Their Names Memorial Project. (Stitch Their Names)

The traveling exhibit features people whose stories are high profile, such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, as well as those whose stories are far less well-known, in hopes that viewers will be able to empathize and perhaps see themselves reflected in stories of those who are honored.

In addition to Paul Childs, a portrait of Elijah McClain, an unarmed man who died in 2019 after an encounter with Aurora police, also was created, though after complaints from his mother, it has been temporarily covered with plans to remove it. Four of the 75 artists who created portraits for the memorial live in Colorado.

“Our goal was to connect a face and a story with a name to evoke some empathy and to honor the aspects of their life that didn’t just include the moment of their death,” said Holli Johannes, the organizer of the project, who used social media to recruit cross-stitchers from 30 states and assigned profiles to each participating artist. 

Emily Vigneaux stitches an embroidered art piece for her nephew on Dec. 21, 2021 in Boulder. Vigneaux is one of many nationwide artists who contributed to the Stitch Their Names Memorial Project, which created handmade quilts in memorial of Black victims of violence across the U.S. Stitch Their Names, founded in July 2020, was started by high school math teacher Holli Johannes in Eugene, Oregon. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Emily Vigneaux, a preschool teacher in Boulder, said there weren’t many photos online of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, two people she memorialized for the project, so she created portraits she imagined their loved ones would have appreciated.

“It was really important to me that they were colorful and looked really happy and relaxed,” she said. “Based on the few photographs that I did find, I did want it to feel true to who they were, or what they actually looked like.”

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Williams, homeless at the time, was with her friend Russell on Nov. 29, 2012, when an officer in plain clothes began following Russell’s car. Russell sped off, and the result was a 62-police car chase through Cleveland. The chase ended after 13 cops fired nearly 140 bullets into the pair’s car. Russell and Williams died. Both were unarmed. 

Boulder preschool teacher Emily Vigneaux created portraits of Malissa Williams and her friend, Timothy Russell, hoping they were images their families would appreciate. (Stitch Their Names)

The nonprofit Stitch Their Names Memorial Project began in July 2020, as unrest and protests continued to swell from the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, sparking a reckoning on racism in the U.S. 

Johannes encouraged cross-stitchers to reach out to the loved ones of people featured in the project. But in many cases, she said, it was hard to reach them.

Sheneen McClain, the mother of Elijah McClain, who was stopped by police in August 2019 as he walked home from a convenience store and died after paramedics gave him a lethal dose of ketamine too large for his body weight, said she was disappointed that the organization did not contact her before creating the portrait of her son. 

“I don’t know why when people die, or when somebody gets murdered by police officers, it automatically means that that person is at everyone else’s disposal, even though they’re gone,” she said. She questioned the purpose of the Stitch Their Names Memorial Project and accused many people of “riding the coattails” of somebody else’s murder “to benefit themselves.”

“I’ve had a lot of issues with people using Elijah’s name, even in the state that he grew up in, in Colorado, without asking me if it was OK,” Sheneen McClain said. “I had to literally get a copyright, so people will stop.

“I did that because too many people and organizations were using my son to benefit themselves,” she said. 

Sheneen McClain has the power to stop people from using her son’s image or his dying pleas to make money, said Aaron P. Bradford, one of her lawyers. “A grieving family has the right to control how the image or likeness of their lost family member is used by others for profit.” 

Johannes, who created the portrait of Elijah McClain, said she did try to contact Sheneen McClain through a private message on Twitter. But she said she never heard back from Sheneen McClain, who likely missed the message while inundated by many other requests during the summer of 2020, when her son’s death began to receive fresh scrutiny during the Black Lives Matter protests in Denver. This year, changes in policy, criminal charges against the police officers and paramedics involved, and a $15 million settlement for McClain’s family drew even more attention to the 23-year-old’s death.

On Tuesday, Johannes said she covered Elijah McClain’s portrait until it can be permanently removed, once the quilt is back in her possession in February. She also has removed his entry from the organization’s online database of biographies and photos of the people memorialized by the quilt

“Honestly, I feel awful,” Johannes said. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to cause any more harm to her,” she said of Elijah McClain’s mother.

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Johannes, who also created portraits of Breonna Taylor and Brayla Stone, is now working to find places to display the quilts in each of the states where the people in the portraits lived.

“We would love for the quilts to travel to Colorado eventually,” Johannes said.

The two quilts — one made up of 48 portraits and the other containing 68 — have so far been displayed in Mississippi and South Carolina, and will next move to New Jersey and then to Iowa. The quilts stay at each host site for one or two months. The quilts are booked until April. Schools, museums, art galleries, cultural centers and other establishments wishing to host them, at no cost, can contact organizers through the Stitch Their Names Memorial Project website, Johannes said.

When Johannes embarked on the memorial project last year, she had no idea hundreds of cross-stitchers would reach out to help support the mission. Johannes, a high school math teacher from Oregon, said she stopped the project once 116 profiles were created, so that the quilts could comfortably be shipped across the U.S., although she said she recognizes the project includes only a small fraction of the Black people killed by police, racism, bigotry and other forms of hate.

The Stitch Their Names Memorial Project in some ways echoes the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, conceived in November 1985 by Cleve Jones, a San Francisco gay rights activist who sought to memorialize those who died from AIDS.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt was unveiled for the first time more than 30 years ago on the National Mall, with 1,920 panels, a small fraction of the more than 20,000 Americans who had died already from AIDS. By 2016, the quilt had grown to 54 tons including about 50,000 panels dedicated to more than 105,000 people, according to the National AIDS Memorial and a Washington Post article written by Jones.

Michael Brown is one of the more high profile contemporary names memorialized by the Stitch Their Names project. He was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. (Stitch Their Names)

The Stitch Their Names Memorial Project quilts were not designed with the AIDS Memorial Quilt in mind, Johannes said.

After the two contemporary quilts make their way to the 30 states, Johannes hopes to find them a permanent home.

“I don’t want them to just be in a closet somewhere,” she said during a recent phone interview. “But I want them to live permanently somewhere, or with someone that they have meaning to, and where they can maybe be permanently displayed.”

MORE: To learn more about the Stitch Their Names Memorial Project, visit stitchtheirnamesmemorialproject.com.