October 29, 1847
January 1, 1910
Harriet Powers was born in slavery in Georgia. Powers's husband, Armstead, was also enslaved. After the Civil War, they farmed land around the town of Athens in the northeastern section of the state, while Powers also managed the household. Historians believe that they had eight children, from their oldest daughter Amanda to their youngest son Marshall. By the mid-1890s they had fallen upon hard financial times, and Powers sustained their farm after Armstead left her and the children had grown and moved away. Powers never learned to read and write, but she survived by taking in sewing, selling quilts, and mortgaging property to acquire equipment and personal possessions and to liquidate debts.
Only two of Powers's story quilts are known to have been preserved. One is owned by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and the other by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. They are unique and distinctive examples of both the African continuities and American influences that informed the culture of southern slaves and their descendants. In the tradition of other West and Central African household objects, such as stools, doors, and bowls, for example, the quilts are meant for daily use as well as the soul's contemplation. (According to Maude Southwell Wahlman, Powers alternatively may have intended them to serve as "adult baptismal robes" [1993, p. 73].) Scholars have suggested that Powers's appliquéd figures, which were very popular among black women seamstresses from the Revolutionary War era through Reconstruction, originated across the Atlantic in the appliquéd flags, banners, and other textiles crafted by guilds of Fon men from Dahomey (present-day Benin). Appliqué is the technique of sewing shapes onto cloth surfaces, and while many of Powers's designs, which were applied with the assistance of a sewing machine, reference biblical stories, they also appear in the work of Fon craftsmen to symbolize individual West African gods.
Powers combines Christian motifs such as the cross, the all-seeing, all-knowing eye of God, and the dove (representing the Holy Spirit) with images that researchers have traced to a Kongo cosmogram known as the four moments or stations of the sun, which symbolizes creation and the continuity of life: birth, life, death, and rebirth. The only known surviving photograph of Powers depicts the quilter wearing an apron appliquéd with such trademark symbols.
Powers's quilts are visual equivalents of the West African griot, who memorized historical events and myths and recited them for entertainment and illumination at community gatherings. They relay stories of secular legends and figures, or occurrences from oral tradition and personal experience, in addition to parables and tales from the "Good Book" featuring familiar characters: Adam, Eve, Job, Jonah, Satan, and Jesus, for example. One of Powers's pictorial quilts, containing eleven scenes, was displayed at the 1886 Cotton Fair in Athens, Georgia. It merged African, Christian, and Masonic symbols to tell such biblical stories as the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan in the garden of Eden, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, Abraham and Isaac, Noah and the ark, Jacob's dream of angels ascending a ladder to heavenly glory, John's baptism of Jesus, and Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Powers did not intend to sell this quilt and rebuffed offers to purchase it when approached by a white art teacher from Athens named "Jennie" (Oneita Virginia) Smith. Several years later, however, desperate for money, Powers reestablished contact with Smith and reluctantly sold her creation for five dollars. However, Smith recorded and preserved an invaluable commentary on the quilt's sources and symbolism, as told to her by Powers. Even after the quilt had changed ownership, Powers lovingly revisited it several times.
In the post-Reconstruction South, annual fairs flaunted the agricultural might of the state, attested to the region's gradual postwar recovery, memorialized the Confederate dead and surviving widows and veterans, and became standard-bearers of the economic and cultural attractions of individual cities and counties. They included exhibits of black Americans' domestic and manual accomplishments, often offering them—food, sewing, carvings, for instance—for sale. By the late nineteenth century, southern black communities were organizing separate buildings or pavilions at these fairs to house their cultural and material productions. With the collapse of the Reconstruction in 1877, the commitment of the southern black leadership to "uplift" the race educationally, economically, domestically, and politically intensified. Anticipating the rise in lynching and racial and sexual violence that would mount as the century drew to a close, African Americans seized upon expositions to demonstrate their people's ethos of hard work, religious piety, and creativity to those white southerners threatened by the economic competition and social parity that might follow the former slaves' hard-won liberation.
These demonstrations of mechanical, artistic, and intellectual achievements proved globally effective. For example, the scholar W. E. B. Du Bois traveled to Paris to launch an exhibit of books, photographs, and other objects produced by southern blacks at the 1900 World's Fair. Similarly, Smith had intended to display Powers's quilt in the Negro Building of the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, where Booker T. Washington famously admonished his fellow descendants of slaves to "cast down your bucket where you are."
Perhaps because of Smith's patronage, Atlanta University acquired a second story quilt from Powers for presentation to Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall, a longtime trustee. Containing fifteen sections, it was exhibited in the Negro Pavilion of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville. It combines Powers's Bible scenes, inter-mingling African and Christian motifs, with panels commemorating meteorological and astronomical events that she had heard from old-timers. These include Black Friday (May 19, 1780), when serial forest fires darkened skies on the eastern seaboard; and Georgia's infamous cold snap of February 10, 1895, during which beasts, fowl, and human beings froze and died in the uncommonly frigid weather and extremely heavy snow. Two meteor showers—the Leonid meteor storm that occurred from November 12 to 14, 1833, and several consecutive nights of fireballs and falling stars during mid-August 1846—are additional events "recorded" by Powers's quilt and corroborated by scientific accounts. By referencing temporal events alongside stories of the sacred and ineffable, Powers affirms the cornerstone religious ideas, cherished by blacks since enslavement, underscoring that God mediates in humanity's worldly affairs, and that possessing faith in a higher power means demonstrating it through earthly deeds, rather than dedicating one's energies merely to anticipating a pleasant heavenly reward.
Powers spent the latter years of life in penury, surviving by selling land and animals to meet debts. County records indicate that she died possessing a mere seventy dollars. Yet, according to quilter Kyra E. Hicks, Powers has earned posthumous recognition as the symbolic fore-mother of African-American women quilters (2003, pp. 217, 228). Twentieth-century black women artists such as Faith Ringgold and Deborah Willis can trace their penchant for telling stories derived from personal and oral sources to Powers, and to those anonymous slave seamstresses who informed Powers's art. Although the Georgia-born Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" (1973) and essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" (1983) do not specifically focus on Powers, they offer a compelling theory of the former slave woman's quilt-making. In both pieces, Walker's themes are that women's everyday work—quilting, cooking, gardening, sewing—knits together and inspires black families and communities, and that the speech, culture, and folkways of rural black American women who quilt, cook, garden, and sew merit serious consideration as art. Like the photographer and former slave Robert E. Williams (1833?–1917), who lived in nearby Augusta, Powers produced a body of work that documents the imagination and creativity of those considered most marginal and inconsequential in postbellum American society.
Powers's quilts are central to the study of African-American vernacular art. They confirm the conclusions of researchers, including Robert Farris Thompson and Michael A. Gomez, that the slaves retained a significant amount of cultural memory through the Middle Passage and subsequent centuries of servitude. Like the sankofa of Ghana, a symbolic bird whose head has turned to scrutinize what is behind it, while its feet face forward, Powers's quilts look backward to an African past and forward to a future where African and American religion and design commingle to create a new art.
Frye, Gladys-Marie. "'A Sermon in Patchwork': New Light on Harriet Powers." In Singular Women: Writing the Artist, edited by Kristen Frederickson and Sarah E. Webb. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Hicks, Kyra E. Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook. London and Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003.
Lyons, Mary E. Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers. New York: Scribner's, 1993.
Perry, Reginia A. Harriet Powers's Bible Quilts. New York: Rizzoli and St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Wahlman, Maude Southwell. Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts. New York: Studio Books, 1993.
barbara mccaskill (2005)