- Margaret Moore Booker
African American quiltmaker. Born into slavery on a plantation near Athens, GA, Powers is known today as the finest African American quiltmaker of the late 19th–early 20th century. Drawing upon narrative folk tradition, Powers recorded in fabric the sermons and stories she had heard living in the South. Following her emancipation, Powers lived with her husband, Armstead Powers, and their children on a farm in the Sandy Creek region of Clarke County, GA. In 1895, at the age of 58, she became the head of her household and supported her family by working as a seamstress. She could neither read nor write, and likely learned to sew from her plantation mistress.
Powers created her quilts by cutting simple shapes (figures, animals, stars and other forms) from printed fabric and sewing them onto squares of plain cloth. She arranged the squares in rows on a large rectangular cloth and embroidered the details by hand and by machine with plain and metallic yarns. Textile scholars note that her quilting method is closely related to the appliqué technique of the Fon people of Abomey, the capital of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) in West Africa.
A deeply religious woman, Powers’s earliest quilt (c. 1886; Washington, DC, N. Mus. Amer. Hist.) features 11 vivid and literal scenes from the Bible. Exhibited at the Athens Cotton Fair of 1886, it was sold by Powers five years later to Jennie Smith for five dollars. A painter and art teacher, Smith exhibited the quilt at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895, where it was likely seen by a group of Atlanta University faculty wives who commissioned a second quilt (c. 1895–8; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.) from Powers. The latter, which features 15 panels depicting Biblical tales in conjunction with local legends and astronomical events, was given by the women to retiring trustee, Dr. Charles C. Hall, in 1898. Both quilts have been preserved with handwritten narratives dictated to Smith by Powers.
As a personal record of her life and an artistic statement, Powers’s quilts are a vital contribution to the American folk art tradition and have influenced the work of numerous contemporary quilters.
- “Harriet Powers: Portrait of a Black Quilter,” Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art (exh. cat. by G. Fry, Atlanta, GA, Hist. Soc. Mus., 1977), pp. 17–23
- M. Wahlman: Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts (New York, 1993)
- R. A. Perry: Harriet Powers’s Bible Quilts (New York, 1994)