Harriet Powers, one of the best-known southern African American quilt makers, was born a slave near Athens, Georgia on October 29, 1837. Only two of her quilts, both made after the Civil War (1861-65), survive today. One is part of the National Museum of American History collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The second quilt is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.
At a young age, she married Armstead Powers and they had at least nine children. Some time after the Civil War, they became landowners. Some historians speculate she spent her early years on a plantation owned by John and Nancy Lester northeast of Athens near Danielsville in Madison County.
In 1865, records show, the family owned no land in Clarke County but claimed $300 in personal property. The Powers family alternated living between Buck Branch and Sandy Creek districts of Clarke County beginning in 1870. By the 1880s, the Powers’owned four acres of land. In the 1890s, the family’s short-lived prosperity dwindled and Armstead sold off parcels of land. He eventually defaulted on taxes, and, after 1894, left Harriet and the farm. Harriet never remarried and probably supported herself as a seamstress.
Powers probably learned the art of quilt making embroidered with appliqué work from her plantation mistress or from other slaves. Slaves did fancy needlework for their owners during the daylight hours and worked to provide practical clothing and bed covers for their own families by candlelight.
Her cotton quilts consist of multiple pictorial squares depicting biblical scenes and celestial phenomena. Constructed through appliqué and piecework they were both hand and machine stitched. The quilts are noteworthy for their bold use of appliqué for storytelling and for their extensive documentation. Textile historians noted great similarities between Powers’ work and the technique exhibited by the Fon people of Dahomey, West Africa. The uneven squares suggest the syncopation found in African American music.
When Harriet was 49 years old, she had finished her first quilt to exhibit at the 1886 Clarke County Cotton Fair. Her first quilt was made of 299 separate pieces of fabric, showing scenes from Bible stories and spirituals using colorful figures stitched to a watermelon-colored background. Harriet probably could not have read the Bible, but she heard the oral lessons and sang the songs, and she made the stories come alive on her quilt.
Harriet’s work caught the eye of Oneida Virginia (“Jennie”) Smith, then head of the art department at the Lucy Cobb Institute. She offered to buy it, but Powers refused to sell it at any price.
Four years later, her husband, because of hard times, urged her to sell the quilt. She offered the quilt to Miss Smith, but at the time Miss Smith could not purchase it. Later Miss Smith sent word that she would buy the quilt if Harriet still wanted to dispose of it. Harriet offered it for ten dollars and Miss Smith countered with five dollars. Harriet consulted with 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.
Knowing the Bible quilt was special Jennie Smith entered it at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. Seeing the quilt, the faculty women at Atlanta University commissioned a second narrative quilt from Harriet Powers to be a gift in 1898 to the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall, president of the Union Theological Seminary and longtime chairman of the board of trustees of Atlanta University. The 15 panels of Powers’ second story quilt illustrated Biblical or verifiable astronomical events.
Harriet Powers died on January 1, 1910 and is buried in the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, Georgia. Although she could neither read nor write, Harriet Powers left a significant record of life and events in the 19th century American south by translating oral stories and meteorological events into her quilts.
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