Harriet Powers

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

(1839-10-29)October 29, 1839
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 African-American slave, folk artist, and quilt maker from 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, DC, 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 mistress.[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.

In 1855, at the age of eighteen, Powers married Armstead Powers.[6] They had at least nine children.[7][8] 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.[9] In the 1880s, after being freed at the end of the Civil War, they owned four acres of land and had a small farm.[10] 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.[11] For most of her life she lived in Clarke County, mainly in Sandy Creek and Buck Branch.


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;[7][8] it is this quilt that is now in the Smithsonian Institution. Jennie Smith, an artist and art teacher from the Lucy Cobb Institute, saw the quilt, which she found to be remarkable,[12] 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.[8] 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.[8] Powers visually communicated with her narrative quilts in themes from her own experience and the techniques from the age-old crafts of African Americans.

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.[8] According to another source, the quilt was purchased in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1898.

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.

Records of other quilts exist but the items have not survived.[8]

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. Another panel illustrates the 'dark day' May 19, 1780 (now identified as dense smoke over North America caused by Canadian Wildfires).[9]

The reason for Powers' interest in celestial bodies is unclear; it has been suggested[by whom?] that they had religious significance for her, 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.

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.[13]

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 appliqued quilt still physically exists today. Given that two of Powers' appliqued quilts have survived for over 100 years, it is possible the Lord's Supper quilt could be in a collection.

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." The panels themselves depicted Bible Stories, like the story of Jacob from the spiritual "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder," which was a popular Bible story with slaves since they related with the hunted, homeless Jacob, the ladder representing escape from slavery.[14] 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 Nod for a wife, Job, Jonah and the Whale,[8] the baptism of Christ, the crucifixion, Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver, the Last Supper, and the Holy Family, Christ's ascension to Heaven.[8] 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."[15] 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.[8]

Pictorial Quilt 1898[edit]

This quilt had fifteen sections and combines Bible scenes with both African and Christian symbols, along with stories of meteorological and astronomical events. Events like Black Friday (May 19, 1780), a series of forest fires, Georgia's cold front of February 10, 1895, the Leonid meteor shower (November 12–14, 1833), and several nights of falling stars during mid-August 1846 were all depicted in this work.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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

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.[19]
  • 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 2007-10-18 at the Wayback Machine, Early Women Masters.
  3. ^ a b c "Georgia Women of Achievement, Harriet Powers, Inducted 2009."
  4. ^ "EXHIBIT OF THE NEGROES (November 24, 1895)". Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  5. ^ Hicks, Kyra E. (2009-07-06). This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and Other Pieces (1St ed.). Place of publication not identified: Black Threads Press. ISBN 9780982479650.
  6. ^ "Powers, Harriet | Georgia Women". georgiawomen.org. Archived from the original on 2016-03-06. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  7. ^ a b "1885 - 1886 Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt". National Museum of American History. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "Harriet Powers an artist of story quilts web". Retrieved 2018-03-22.
  11. ^ "Powers, Harriet". Georgia Women of Achievement. Archived from the original on 6 March 2016. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  12. ^ "Pictorial quilt". Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  13. ^ Kyra E. Hicks, "This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and Other Pieces", pp. 37–40.
  14. ^ "Powers, Harriet." Georgia Women of Achievement. 2014. http://georgiawomen.org/2010/10/powers-harriet/ Archived 2016-03-06 at the Wayback Machine Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.
  15. ^ "1885 - 1886 Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt". Smithsonian: National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 26 October 2016.
  16. ^ 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 26 October 2016.
  17. ^ 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 12 November 2014.
  18. ^ " Stitch in Time," by Julie Philips, Athens Banner-Herald, October 24, 2010, [1]
  19. ^ Finch, Lucine (October 28, 1914). "A Sermon in Patchwork". The Outlook: With Illustrations. The Outlook: 493–495. Retrieved 4 November 2017.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]