February 27th, 2009
Harriet Powers, known as the “mother of African-American quilting,” was born into slavery in Athens, Georgia. Southern African American women slaves were often trained as expert seamstresses and Harriet was most likely was taught the craft of quilt making by her mother. There are two remaining quilts by Harriet Powers that were made after she was freed from slavery following the civil war. Her quilts are considered among the finest examples of nineteenth century Southern quilting. Her work is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. The quilts were constructed through appliqué and piecework and were hand and machine stitched. In 1886, Powers began exhibiting her quilts. Her first quilt was shown at a cotton fair in Athens. An artist and teacher by the name of Jennie Smith offered to purchase the quilt but Harriet refused to sell. Harriet however fell into financial trouble and sold the quilt to Smith for five dollars. This quilt has eleven rectangular blocks of various sizes, portraying scenes from the Old and New Testaments. There is not much known about the second quilt. This quilt was presented to the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall of New York City, who was the chairman of Atlanta University’s board of trustees at the time. The quilt was then sold to collector Maxim Karolik, who donated it to the museum in Boston. Both quilts have numerous pictorial squares depicting biblical scenes. The quilts were maybe used as a form of storytelling and visual teaching tools since Harriet was most likely illiterate. The use of appliqué designs to tell stories is closely related to artistic practices in the republic of Benin, West Africa. Her use technique and design demonstrates African and African American influences. These quilts show the importance of religion to Harriet and African Americans. Only one image of Harriet Powers herself survives. The photograph was taken in about 1897, and it shows her wearing an apron with appliquéd images of a moon, cross, and sun or shooting star. These same celestial bodies appeared repeatedly in her quilts and often carefully stitched in complex ways, indicating their importance to her.