Harriet Powers (1837 – 1910) was an African-American quilter, who was born into slavery in Clarke County, Georgia (USA). Historians believe that she spent her early life on a plantation owned by John and Nancy Lester in Madison County, Georgia, where it is believed she learnt to sew either from other slaves or from the mistress. At a young age, she married Armstead Powers and they had at least nine children.
The Civil War that freed the slaves also brought great hardship to slaves just as it did to many southerners. The shortages of food and clothing affected everyone and the future was uncertain. The Powers family lived in Georgia and most certainly the widespread poverty after the war deeply affected them. In the 1880s the family acquired a small plot of land to farm. Eventually, circumstances forced them to sell off part of the land but not their home.
Harriet is remembered for her two surviving story quilts which are considered to be among the finest examples of nineteenth-century Southern quilting. Both items are made of cotton and use appliqué to create pictures.
One of her quilts is now in the National Museum of American History (Washington D.C.). It is called the Bible Quilt (NMAH 283472) and was made in c. 1886. Its design is made up of eleven blocks depicting Biblical stories, including ‘Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden’ and the ‘Last Supper’. The quilt measures 191 x 227 cm and was made using both hand and machine stitching.
Harriet exhibited the quilt at the Athens Cotton Fair of 1886 where it captured the imagination of Jennie Smith, a young internationally-trained local artist. Of her discovery, Jennie later wrote:
“I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I had never seen an original design, and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork, until the year 1886, when there was held in Athens, Georgia, a ‘Cotton-Fair,’ which was on a much larger scale than an ordinary county fair, as there was a ‘Wild West’ show, and Cotton Weddings; and a circus, all at the same time. There was a large accumulation farm products–the largest potatoes, tallest cotton stalk, biggest water-melon! Best display of pickles and preserves made by exhibitor! Best display of seeds &c and all the attractions usual to such occasions, and in one corner there hung a quilt-which ‘captured my eye’ and after much difficulty I found the owner, a negro woman, who lives in the country on a little farm whereon she and husband make a respectable living . . . . The scenes on the quilt were biblical and I was fascinated. I offered to buy it, but it was not for sale at any price.”
Four years later, Mrs. Powers, at the urging of her husband because of hard times, offered to sell the quilt, but Miss Smith’s “financial affairs were at a low ebb and I could not purchase.” Later Jennie sent word that she would buy the quilt if Harriet still wanted to dispose of it. Harriet “arrived one afternoon in front of my door in an ox-cart with the precious burden in her lap encased in a clean flour sack, which was still further enveloped in a crocus sack. She offered it for ten dollars–but–I only had five to give.” Harriet went out to consult her husband and reported that he said she had better take the five dollars.
Mrs. Powers regretfully turned over her precious creation, but only after explaining each of the eleven panels of the design, which Jennie Smith recorded. Briefly, the subjects are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a continuance of Paradise with Eve and a son, Satan amidst the seven stars, Cain killing his brother Abel, Cain goes into the land of Nod to get a wife, Jacob’s dream, the baptism of Christ, the crucifixion, Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver, the Last Supper, and the Holy Family.
In her narrative about the quilt, artist Jennie revealed why she was so taken with it: “Her style is bold and rather on the impressionists order while there is a naievete of expression that is delicious.”
In recent times, historians have compared Harriet’s work to textiles of Dahomey, West Africa.
Harriot’s second piece, called the Pictorial Quilt, is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts (MFA 64.619). It dates to about 1895-1898. The design is made up of fifteen blocks that depict people, animals and astronomical phenomena, including a solar eclipse. It measures 175 x 267 cm. There are several accounts relating to the history of this quilt, one being that it was commissioned by faculty wives of Atlanta University, as a gift to a University trustee who was retiring. The trustee’s heirs subsequently sold the quilt to a collector, who donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston).
The appliquéd figures have been linked to the appliqué textiles that portray stories of the Fon people (formerly Dahomey, in West Africa).
1. Job praying for his enemies. Job crosses. Job’s coffin.
2. The dark day of May 19, 1780. The seven stars were seen 12 N. in the day. The cattle wall went to bed, chickens to roost and the trumpet was blown. The sun went off to a small spot and then to darkness.
3. The serpent lifted up by Moses and women bringing their children to look upon it to be healed.
4. Adam and Eve in the garden. Eve tempted by the serpent. Adam’s rib by which Eve was made. The sun and the moon. God’s all-seeing eye and God’s merciful hand.
5. John baptizing Christ and the spirit of God descending and resting upon his shoulder like a dove.
6. Jonah cast over board of the ship and swallowed by a whale. Turtles.
7. God created two of every kind, male and female.
8. The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833. The people were frightened and thought that the end had come. God’s hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds.
9. Two of every kind of animal continued…camels, elephants, “gheraffs,” lions, etc.
10. The angels of wrath and the seven vials. The blood of fornications. Seven-headed beast and 10 horns which arose of the water.
11. Cold Thursday, 10 of February, 1895. A woman frozen while at prayer. A woman frozen at a gateway. A man with a sack of meal frozen. Icicles formed from the breath of a mule. All blue birds killed. A man frozen at his jug of liquor.
12. The red light night of 1846. A man tolling the bell to notify the people of the wonder. Women, children and fowls frightened by God’s merciful hand caused no harm to them.
13. Rich people who were taught nothing of God. Bob Johnson and Kate Bell of Virginia. They told their parents to stop the clock at one and tomorrow it would strike one and so it did. This was the signal that they had entered everlasting punishment. The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, her name was Betts.
14. The creation of animals continues.
15. The crucifixion of Christ between the two theives. The sun went into darkness. Mary and Martha weeping at his feet. The blood and water run from his right side.
It is thought that Powers made at least three other story quilts, including one of the Last Supper, but their present whereabouts are unknown.
The date of Harriet’s death, Jan. 1, 1910, was recently discovered on her gravestone in Athen’s Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery.
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