Harriet Powers was born a slave and lived her whole life near Athens, Georgia, yet her “story quilts” reflect the traditions and style of her West African ancestors, and tell timeless stories for generations of people around the world. Her life was local,but due to her talent and the extraordinary explanations of her work, her impact is global. Harriet was born into slavery on October 29, 1837, near Athens, Georgia. She spent her early life on a plantation owned by John and Nancy Lester in Madison County,where it was typical for young girls to learn to sew from other slaves, or from the mistress of the house. She married at 18 and began a family that would eventually include nine children.
In 1886 when Harriet was 49 years old, she had finished her first quilt to exhibit at the Clarke County Cotton Fair. She combined the African style of applique, with European style stitching to create unique “story quilts” which are preserved today as remarkable pieces of both folk art, and history. Her first quilt was made of 299 separate pieces of fabric, depicting scenes from Bible stories and spirituals. The figures were colorful and stitched to a watermelon-colored background. Broken vertical strips divided the quilt into panels. In West African designs that are similar, unbroken lines are used to startle spirits and keep evil from “moving in straight lines.” ( Lyons, 1993 ) One panel tells the story of Jacob,from the spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” This was a popular Bible story among slaves because they identified with a man who was homeless,hunted,and weary of his journey, and the ladder represented an escape from slavery (Lyons, 1993). Harriet couldn’t have read the Bible, but she heard the oral lessons and sang the songs, and she made the stories come alive on her quilt.
We would know nothing about Harriet’s life if it were not for Jennie Smith, an artist and art teacher at the Lucy Cobb Institute, a secondary school for young women in Athens, Georgia from 1859 to 1931. Jennie first saw Harriet’s quilt of stories from the Bible at the Fair. Harriet gave Jennie a detailed explanation of each of the 11 panels, which she recorded, making the quilt’s history truly priceless. Jennie eventually bought the quilt from Harriet for five dollars and treasured it. Today it is part of the collection at the Smithsonian Museum of American History where thousands of people can read her story and enjoy it each year.
Jennie Smith knew the Bible quilt was special, and she entered it at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. The faculty wives at Atlanta University saw it and commissioned a second narrative quilt. This quilt was 15 panels, illustrating Bible stories and documenting specific natural events (“Cold Thursday”, February 10, 1895 when temperatures were below zero in Athens), and even some that had happened before her birth ( November 13, 1833, “Night of Falling Stars” which was later identified as the Leonid meteor storm.) This quilt stayed in the family of the chairperson of the board of trustees until it was acquired by folk art collector Maxim Karolik and donated to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Harriet Powers died on January 1, 1910 and is buried in the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, Georgia. Although she could neither read nor write, Harriet Powers left a significant record of life and events in the 19th century American south by translating oral stories and meteorological events into her quilts. Only two of her art pieces have survived. One hangs in the American History Museum of the Smithsonian, and one hangs in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. There are books about her life, an off-Broadway play, “Quilting in the Sun” has been written and performed about her, and there is a current move to put her on a postage stamp.
You can petition the U.S. Postal Service to issue a Harriet Powers Commemorative Stamp by sending your postcard,letter,or quilt guild petition to:The Citizens’Stamp Advisory Committee,U. S. Postal Service, c/o Stamp Development, U.S. Postal Service, 475 L’Enfant Plaza,SW, Room 5670,Washington, D.C. 20260-2437.