Harriet Powers

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Harriet Powers
Harriet Powers 1901.png
Photograph of Harriet Powers (1901)
Born Harriet Powers
(1837-10-29)October 29, 1837
Clarke County, Georgia
Died January 1, 1910(1910-01-01) (aged 72)
Clarke County, Georgia
Nationality American
Known for Quilting
Notable work Bible Quilt 1886
Bible Quilt 1898

Harriet Powers (October 29, 1837 – January 1, 1910) 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.[1] 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 to slaves 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 learn to sew either from other slaves or from the mistress.[2]

Though an 1895 Chicago Tribune article[3] 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[4]" a letter written by Powers explaining how she came to be literate and that she learned the 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 her husband, Armstead Powers.[5] They had at least nine children.[6] In the 1880s, and after being freed at the end of the Civil War, they owned four acres of land and had a small farm.[7] For most of her life she lived in Clarke County, mainly in Sandy Creek and Buck Branch.


Bible quilt, Mixed Media. 1886
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] 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,[8] 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 five years later, she agreed to sell the piece for five dollars. 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.[2]

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. 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 in Boston.

Powers died on January 1, 1910, and was buried in the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens. Her grave was rediscovered in January 2005.[9]


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. 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.[10]

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.


In 2009, Powers was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame.[2]

In October 2010, there were 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.[11] Athens-Clarke County Mayor Heidi Davison issued a proclamation naming October 30, 2010, as Harriet Powers Day.

Harriet Powers biographies[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).
  • Rizzoli (April 15, 1994). Harriet Powers's Bible Quilts, Rizzoli. ISBN 0-8478-1653-2
  • Lyons, Mary E. (December 1, 1997), Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers, Aladdin; reprint edition. ISBN 0-689-81707-X
  • 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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harriet Powers, Early Women Masters.
  2. ^ a b c "Georgia Women of Achievement, Harriet Powers, Inducted 2009."
  3. ^ "EXHIBIT OF THE NEGROES (November 24, 1895)". Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ "Powers, Harriet | Georgia Women". georgiawomen.org. Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  6. ^ a b "1885 - 1886 Harriet Powers's Bible Quilt". National Museum of American History. Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  7. ^ "Harriet Powers an artist of story quilts | African American Registry". www.aaregistry.org. Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  8. ^ "Pictorial quilt". Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Retrieved 2016-03-05. 
  9. ^ Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (2011). "'A Quilt Unlike Any Other': Rediscovering the Work of Harriet Powers". In Elizabeth Anne Payne. Writing Women's History: A Tribute to Anne Firor Scott. UP of Mississippi. pp. 82–116. ISBN 9781617031748. Retrieved 12 November 2014. 
  10. ^ Kyra E. Hicks, "This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers' Bible Quilt and Other Pieces", pp. 37 - 40.
  11. ^ " Stitch in Time," by Julie Philips, Athens Banner Herald, October 24, 2010, [1]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]