Harriet Powers: A Freed Slave Tells Stories Through Quilting
~ Harriet Powers' life and the making of her story quilts ~
The Life of Harriet Powers
Although we get glimpses of the lives of African American slave women it is a rare treat that with Harriet Powers we have a good deal of information about her life and her marvelous quilts.
Visualize a woman born into slavery in Georgia in 1837 and married at eighteen. We can only imagine her childhood. She probably grew up as a house slave and likely learned to sew as a child. Perhaps her life as a slave was better than it was for so many as years later she tlked of "her ole Miss and her life before the war." 1
It has been assumed that Harriet Powers was an illiterate woman and there are documents describing her in a stereotypical way as in this newspaper article that told about the exhibited Bible Quilt. "It was made long ago by a poor ignorant slave who could not read and whose only knowledge of the Bible was the stories told her by others more fortunate." 2
Imagine the thrill it was for quilt historian Kyra Hicks when her extensive research uncovered the fact that Harriet Powers was a literate woman! A copy of a letter written by Harriet Powers tells that she learned to read with the help of the white family's children. She then read and studied on her own. Now we know that her quilt blocks were not just based on what other people had told her but instead they were the results of her own study of the Bible. 3
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. During the years from her marriage to sometime after the war Harriet Powers gave birth to nine children. The Powers family lived in Georgia and most certainly the widespread poverty after the war deeply affected them. We do know that in the 1880s the family was able to get a small plot of land to farm.
Harriet Powers and Her Quilts
We don't know how many quilts Harriet Powers made during her life but in her letter she mentions making a star quilt and one of the Lord's Supper. She also writes of entering her quilts in fairs. 3
We do know that Harriet exhibited her appliquéd quilt based on stories in the Bible at the Clarke County Cotton Fair in 1886. It was at this fair that Jennie Smith, a college art teacher, first saw Harriet's Bible Quilt and offered to buy it but Harriet was not ready to sell.
Sadly for Powers' family, hard financial times a few years later forced Harriet to sell the quilt to Jennie for just five dollars and some fabric. Yet it was a fortunate occurrence for future generations as Jennie preserved the quilt and the information about each block. She also had the quilt exhibited in the Colored Building at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia in 1895.
We don't know the details but what we will call the Pictorial Quilt may have been commissioned after the Bible Quilt was seen at the exposition in Atlanta. It was then given to Dr Charles Cuthbert Hall in 1898. Hall was a pastor who dedicated much of his life to the education of his fellow African Americans. Apparently the quilt was meaningful to him as he kept and cherished it as did his family after his death. 4 This second existing quilt was a bit different than the first, mixing Biblical stories with celestial and other events.
Harriet's Bible Quilt now resides at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The Pictorial Quilt resides at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.
Stories in the Blocks
After seeing the first Bible quilt Jennie Smith wrote, "I regret exceedingly that it is impossible to describe the gorgeous coloring of the work." 1 It is hard to imagine such colors on the now faded quilt. In the graphic on the right I used scrapbook papers to show how it might have looked. Recorded information is mixed. I found one resource that states that the background was pink calico while another indicates that only the border was pink. *
Harriet's descriptions for each block of the two surviving quilts have been preserved for history. Following are examples.
I'll start with the quilt block that I reproduced in paper on the right. Harriet related that it tells the story of Cain going to the land of Nod to get a wife. The picture includes two bears, an elephant, a lion, a leopard, an elk and what she called the 'kangaroo hog". 5
Concerning the Pictorial Quilt on the book cover shown to the left Harriet described top left block as, "Job praying for his enemies. Job's crosses. Job's coffin." p6
Regarding the very center block Harriet said, "The people were frighten and thought that the end of time had come. God's hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds." 7
These short quotes aren't enough to show the full depth of Harriet's meaning in her quilts. Gladys Fry has analyzed an interview published in 1914 in which Harriet explains the scenes in the Bible Quilt. It helps us realize that each item in each scene was carefully thought out. Fry concludes "Powers's comments both reveal her personality ... and show how her mind worked__its basic generosity and its ability to deal with dramatic and complex events in concise form." 8
© 2009 Judy Anne Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)
2 p30, 3 p38, 4 pp66-75 This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and other Pieces by Kyra Hicks
1 p18, 5 p11, 6 p25, 7 p27, Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers, by Mary E Lyons
8 p91 Singular Women: Writing the Artist "A Sermon in Patchwork: New Light on Harriet Powers" by Gladys-Marie Fry.
* Based on the above book by Kyra Hicks I found that Carla R. Jameson described the quilt this way. "The foundation is made of pink calico, and then the figures are stitched on". p31 This was in a newspaper article Jamison wrote reporting about some quilts seen at the Cotton States and International of 1895. Also in Hicks' book we find that Lorene Diver described the quilt as having a Rose Calico border. p15 Diver had had the quilt photographed at the same exposition and wrote about the quilt on the back of the photo. On top of all this Mary Lyons wrote in her book shown above that the background of the fabric was the color of a "juicy pink watermelon". There is no reference as to where Lyons found this information.
Sites About Harriet Powers:
Smithsonian: Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt
Smithsonian: History Wired: Bible Quilt
"A Sermon in Patchwork: New Light on Harriet Powers" by Gladys-Marie Fry
Southern Quilters: Harriet Powers
African American Story Bible Quilts by Harriet Powers (1837-1911)
Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers
Tributes via Quilts - 1837**HARRIET POWERS**1911