Harriet Powers

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Harriet Powers
Harriet Powers 1901.png
Photograph of Harriet Powers (1901)
Harriet Powers

(1837-10-29)October 29, 1837
DiedJanuary 1, 1910(1910-01-01) (aged 72)
Known forQuilting
Notable work
Bible Quilt 1886
Bible Quilt 1898

Harriet Powers (October 29, 1837 – January 1, 1910)[1] was an American folk artist and quilt maker. She was born into slavery in rural Georgia. She used traditional appliqué techniques to record local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events on her quilts. Only two of her quilts are known to have survived: Bible Quilt 1886 and Pictorial Quilt 1898. Her quilts are considered among the finest examples of nineteenth-century Southern quilting.[2] Her work is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.


Early life[edit]

Powers was born into slavery near Athens, Georgia. Historians say she spent her early life on a plantation owned by John and Nancy Lester in Madison County, Georgia, where it is believed she learned to sew from other slaves or from her female enslaver.[3]

Though an 1895 Chicago Tribune article[4] about the Cotton States and International Expo characterizes Powers as ignorant and illiterate, only learning Bible stories from "others more fortunate", quilt historian Kyra E. Hicks discovered during research for her book This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and Other Pieces[5] a letter written by Powers explaining how she came to be literate and that she learned bible stories, which served as the inspiration for her quilt work storytelling through her own study of the bible.[citation needed]

In 1855, at the age of eighteen, Powers married Armstead Powers.[3] They had at least nine children.[6][7] Harriet's husband, Armstead Powers identified himself as a 'farmhand' in the 1870 census; Harriet is listed as 'keeping house', and three children, Amanda, Leon Joe (Alonzo) and Nancy lived at home.[8] In the 1880s, after being freed at the end of the American Civil War, they owned four acres of land and had a small farm.[9] During the 1890s, due to financial difficulty, her husband slowly sold off parcels of their land, defaulted on taxes, and eventually left Harriet and their farm in 1895. Powers never remarried and probably supported herself as a seamstress.[3] For most of her life she lived in Clarke County, mainly in Sandy Creek and Buck Branch.[10]


Harriet Powers Bible Quilt, 1885–1886

In 1886, Powers began exhibiting her quilts. Her first quilt, known as the Bible Quilt, was shown at the Athens Cotton Fair in 1886;[6][7] This quilt can now be found at the Smithsonian Institution. Jennie Smith, an artist and art teacher from the Lucy Cobb Institute, saw the quilt, which she found to be remarkable,[11] at the fair and asked to purchase it, but Powers refused to sell. The two women remained in touch, however, and when Powers met with financial difficulties four years later, she agreed to sell the piece for five dollars, having asked for ten but talked down by Smith.[7] At the same time Powers vividly explained the imagery on the quilt; Smith recorded these explanations, adding notes of her own in her personal diary.[3] It may be that Smith elaborated on the Christian content in her account.[7] Powers visually communicated with her narrative quilts in themes from her own experience and the techniques from the age-old crafts of African Americans.[12]

The history of the second quilt is unclear. One account suggests that it was commissioned by the wives of faculty members of Atlanta University, who had seen the first quilt at the Cotton States Exhibition in Atlanta in 1895, when Powers and her husband had separated.[7] According to another source, the quilt was purchased in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1898.[citation needed]

Whatever its origins, the piece was presented to the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall of New York City, who was serving as the vice-chairman of the University's board of trustees at the time. The reverend's heirs sold the quilt to collector Maxim Karolik, who then donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.[13]

Records of other quilts exist but they have not survived.[7]

Style of quilt work[edit]

Pictorial quilt, Mixed Media. 1898

Bible Quilt 1886 and Pictorial Quilt 1898 consist of numerous pictorial squares depicting either biblical scenes or celestial phenomena. Hand and machine stitched, they were made through appliqué and piecework, demonstrating both African and African-American influences; they are notable for their bold use of these techniques in storytelling. For example, Powers did a panel called the 'night of the falling stars,' which reflected the three-day spectacular Leonid shower of meteors in 1833, four years before her birth. Jennie Smith recorded Harriet Powers's comments for each square of the Bible Quilt, and according to Smith's notes, in the falling stars square, "The people were frightened and thought that the end of time had come. God's hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds."[14] Another panel illustrates the 'dark day' May 19, 1780 (now identified as dense smoke over North America caused by Canadian Wildfires).[8]

The author Floris Barnett Cash suggests that Powers' interest in celestial scenes, religious stories, and astronomical occurrences was due to the Black community where she lived. Community shared information like hearing sermons from preachers every Sunday or the news shared during quilting frolics influenced her quilts.[12]

The reason for Powers' interest in celestial bodies is unclear; it has been suggested that they had religious significance for her,[15] or were related to a fraternal organization of some sort. Her interpretations of both quilts have survived, though they likely have been influenced by their recorders. Although we now know that Powers was literate (see next paragraph), she might have used her quilts as teaching tools.[citation needed]

In 2009, a copy of an 1896 letter from Harriet Powers to a prominent Keokuk, Iowa woman surfaced. In the letter, Powers shares insights into her life as a slave, when she learned to read and write, and descriptions of at least four quilts she stitched.[16]

In her letter, Harriet Powers also describes a quilt made about 1882 that she called the Lord's Supper quilt. It is unclear if the presumably appliquéd quilt still physically exists today. Given that two of Powers' appliquéd quilts have survived for over 100 years, it is possible the Lord's Supper could be in a collection.[citation needed]


Bible Quilt 1886[edit]

The quilt had 299 separate pieces of fabric, made into 11 panels. Broken vertical strips separated each panel. In West African design, unbroken lines were meant to startle spirits and keep evil from "moving in straight lines."[citation needed] The panels themselves depicted Bible Stories, like the story of Jacob from the spiritual "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder," a popular Bible story with slaves since they related with the hunted, homeless Jacob and the ladder, representing escape from slavery.[3] The other subjects are Adam and Eve, Eve and her son in a continuance of Paradise, Satan among the seven stars, Cain killing Abel, Cain going into the Land of Nod for a wife, Job, Jonah and the Whale,[7] the Baptism of Christ, the Crucifixion, Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver, the Last Supper, the Holy Family, and Christ's ascension to Heaven.[7] Jennie Smith said she was so taken with the quilt because, "[Powers's] style is bold and rather on the impressionist's order while there is a naivete of expression that is delicious."[17] Another interpretation is that the stories illustrated were chosen by Powers, a second or third generation enslaved woman, as coded messages of loss and escape. Harriet visited the Quilt once in Smith's ownership on several occasions, showing it had special significance in her life.[7]

Bible Quilt controversy[edit]

In 1992 The Smithsonian Institution hired a Chinese company to make reproductions of Bible Quilt along with several other famous 19th century quilts, including Susan Strong's 1830 Great Seal Quilt.[18][19] When the first reproductions appeared in Spiegel catalogue for purchase, many Americans were shocked.[citation needed] The quilting and arts community, particularly The National Quilting Association [20] and Maryland's Four County Quilt Guild,[21] were extremely upset by these reproduction efforts.[citation needed] They felt it was disrespectful to try and make money off the Bible Quilt and other works like it without exploring who might own the familial rights to the work and who could possibly receive some of the royalties from its reproduction. The quilting and arts community were also concerned that the mass reproduction of these unique, timeless quilts would not only damper the significance of their authorship, but muddy the important origins of their place in American history. Additionally, they felt strongly that if reproductions were going to be made, they should be produced by American quilting companies to help continually support the craft in the U.S. Many felt so passionate about this cause that they canceled their Smithsonian memberships, contacted their congressman, signed petitions and protested outside the National Mall in Washington, D.C.[citation needed] The Smithsonian Institution made several changes to their reproduction efforts based on these responses, including having "Copyright 1992 Smithsonian Institution"[22] printed on every quilt in hopes of avoiding confusion. They agreed to not sell quilt reproductions in museum gift shops or any type of catalogue, and changed their reproduction contract to two domestic companies, the Cabin Creek Quilters in Appalachia and the Missouri Breaks living on the Lakota Sioux reservation.[23] To combat controversies like this in the future, the Smithsonian additionally began to hold public forums that fostered discussion and further research about ethical practices as it relates to artistic reproductions.[citation needed]

Pictorial Quilt 1898[edit]

Harriet Powers made a set of quilts called the Pictorial Quilt in 1889. It’s an example of a narrative quilt in the applique style. It has 15 panels, ten of which in the quilt are images of her interpretation of the bible stories she read. The 10 biblical images in the quilt are the creation of the animals, Adam and Eve, Moses and the serpent, Jonah and the whale, Job praying for his enemies, and two scenes in the life of Jesus. The second image is a depiction of the dark day of May 19, 1780, where the smoke and ashes from the forest fires in the US and Canada appear to block out the sun. The central panel of the quilt (the one with the blue background) is an account of the Leonid meteor shower of 1833. The panel is telling the story of the constellation Leo, and his story of the meteors who thought is God’s hand. The other 5 are reports of natural phenomena that impress normal Americans and became part of oral tradition. For example, Panel 11 is about the cold weather on February 10, 1895, when, according to Powers’ description, icicles from the breath of a mule and a man froze his jug of liquor. Panel 12 and 13 are not based on any big events, like Panel 13 where a hog said to walk from Georgia to Virginia.[24][25][26]

Death and posthumous honors[edit]

Powers died on January 1, 1910; and was buried in the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens. Her grave was rediscovered in January 2005.[27]

In 2009, Powers was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame.[3]

In October 2010, there was a series of events in Athens, Georgia, around the theme "Hands That Can Do: A Centennial Celebration of Harriet Powers." The events included a quilt exhibit, storytelling, a gospel concert, a symposium, a commemorative church service, and visit to the Powers grave site.[28]

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Heidi Davison issued a proclamation naming October 30, 2010, as Harriet Powers Day.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

Children's literature[edit]

  • Fader, Ellen. (March 1, 1994). "Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers". An article from: The Horn Book Magazine. Vol. 70, no. 2, p. 219(2).
  • Herkert, Barbara, and Vanessa Brantley-Newton (illustrator). "Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers' Journey From Slave To Artist." New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2015. OCLC 864752924
  • Lyons, Mary E. Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers. New York, NY: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1997. OCLC 38176225


  • Finch, Lucine, "A Sermon in Patchwork," Outlook, October 28, 1914, pp. 493–495. Published four years after Powers' death, Lucine Finch's article includes a photograph of the Bible Quilt, description of each quilt block, and (presumably) quotes by Powers.[29]
  • Fowler, Earlene. State Fair. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2011. OCLC 679929882
  • Hicks, Kyra E. "Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook", McFarland & Company, 2003. ISBN 0-7864-1374-3
  • Hicks, Kyra E. "This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and Other Pieces", Black Threads Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9824796-5-0
  • Bobo, Jacqueline. Black Feminist Cultural Criticism. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Quilt patterns[edit]

  • Powers, Harriet. A Pattern Book: Based on an Appliqué Quilt by Mrs. Harriet Powers, American, 19th Century. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1970. OCLC 6038345
  • Perry, Regenia. Harriet Powers's Bible Quilts. New York: Rizzoli International, 1994. OCLC 29356836
  • Hicks, Kyra E. The Lord's Supper Pattern Book: Imagining Harriet Powers' Lost Bible Story Quilt. Arlington: Black Threads Press, 2011. OCLC 779971630

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ashley Callahan. "Harriet Powers (1837–1910)". New Georgia Encyclopedia.
  2. ^ Harriet Powers Archived October 18, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Early Women Masters.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "HARRIET POWERS – Nurse. Volunteer. social activist". Georgia Women of Achievement. March 2009. Archived from the original on December 21, 2019. Retrieved August 27, 2020.
  4. ^ "EXHIBIT OF THE NEGROES (November 24, 1895)". Retrieved March 5, 2016.
  5. ^ Hicks, Kyra E. (July 6, 2009). This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and Other Pieces (1St ed.). Place of publication not identified: Black Threads Press. ISBN 9780982479650.
  6. ^ a b "1885 – 1886 Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt". National Museum of American History. Retrieved March 5, 2016.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hunter, Clare (2019). Threads of life : a history of the world through the eye of a needle. London: Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton). pp. 201–203. ISBN 9781473687912. OCLC 1079199690.
  8. ^ a b Reed Miller, Rosemary E. (2002). Threads of Time, The Fabric of History. Washington, DC: T&S Press. p. 32. ISBN 0-9709713-0-3.
  9. ^ "Harriet Powers an artist of story quilts web". Retrieved March 22, 2018.
  10. ^ "Biography of Harriet Powers". americanartgallery.org. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
  11. ^ "Pictorial quilt". Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Retrieved March 5, 2016.
  12. ^ a b Cash, Floris Barnett (1995). "Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition". The Journal of Negro History. 80 (1): 30–41. doi:10.2307/2717705. ISSN 0022-2992.
  13. ^ "Pictorial quilt". collections.mfa.org. Retrieved May 6, 2022.
  14. ^ May, Rachael (2018). An American quilt. Unfolding a story of family and slavery. Pegasus Books. pp. 209 (quoted on). ISBN 978-1-68177-417-6. OCLC 1035751122.
  15. ^ Adams, Marie Jeanne (1976). "The Harriet Powers Pictorial Quilts". Black Art. 3: 12–28. ISSN 0145-8116. OCLC 2792353.
  16. ^ Kyra E. Hicks, "This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and Other Pieces", pp. 37–40.
  17. ^ "1885 – 1886 Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt". Smithsonian: National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved October 26, 2016.
  18. ^ KONCIUS, JURA (April 10, 1992). "Smithsonian Wraps Itself in Controversy : Americana: The museum is authorizing the sale of foreign-made reproductions of classic American quilt designs".
  19. ^ "1825 - 1840 Susan Strong's "Great Seal" Quilt". National Museum of American History.
  20. ^ "NQA - National Quilting Association". QuiltingHub.
  21. ^ Maryland's Four County Quilt Guild
  22. ^ "Smithsonian Wraps Itself in Controversy : Americana: The museum is authorizing the sale of foreign-made reproductions of classic American quilt designs". Los Angeles Times. April 10, 1992. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  23. ^ "The Smithsonian Quilt Controversy | World Quilts: The American Story". worldquilts.quiltstudy.org.
  24. ^ Cole, Thomas B. (November 19, 2014). "Pictorial Quilt: Harriet Powers". JAMA. 312 (19): 1952–1953. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.279853. ISSN 0098-7484.
  25. ^ McCaskill, Barbara (2006). Encyclopedia of African-American culture and history : the Black experience in the Americas (2nd ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. pp. 1830–1831. ISBN 0028658167. Retrieved October 26, 2016.
  26. ^ Cole, T. B. (2014). "Pictorial Quilt". Journal of the American Medical Association. 312 (19): 1952–1953. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.279853.
  27. ^ Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (2011). "'A Quilt Unlike Any Other': Rediscovering the Work of Harriet Powers". In Elizabeth Anne Payne (ed.). Writing Women's History: A Tribute to Anne Firor Scott. UP of Mississippi. pp. 82–116. ISBN 9781617031748. Retrieved November 12, 2014.
  28. ^ " Stitch in Time," by Julie Philips, Athens Banner-Herald, October 24, 2010, [1]
  29. ^ Finch, Lucine (October 28, 1914). "A Sermon in Patchwork". The Outlook: With Illustrations. The Outlook: 493–495. Retrieved November 4, 2017.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]