Harriet Powers is one of South America’s best-known quilt makers, although only two of her quilts, both of which she made after the Civil War (1861-1865), survive today. One is in the collection of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC The second quilt is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Cotton quilts are made up of many pictorial squares depicting biblical scenes and celestial phenomena. They were constructed using appliques and patches and were hand and machine stitched.
Powers was born into slavery near Athens on October 29, 1837, and has lived more than half of her life in Clarke County, primarily in Sandy Creek and Buck Branch. The first of the Powers quilts was exhibited in 1886 at a cotton fair in Athens, where Jennie Smith, artist and art teacher at the Lucy Cobb Institute, an elite school for white women in Athens, the has seen. She asked to buy it from Powers, but Powers refused to sell it. Smith remained in contact with Powers, however, and five years later Powers, having financial difficulties, agreed to sell the quilt for five dollars. At the time of the sale, Powers explained the images in the squares and Smith recorded the descriptions along with his own additional comments.
The story of the second quilt is less clear. One account indicates that the wives of faculty members at the University of Atlanta (later Clark Atlanta University) saw the first quilt at the Cotton States Exhibition in Atlanta in 1895 and decided to order a second quilt from Powers . Another account suggests that the second quilt was purchased by the same college ladies who may have seen it at the Nashville, Tennessee exhibit in 1898. Either way, the college wives have presented the quilt to Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall of New York in 1898, while he was chairman of the board of the University of Atlanta. Folk art collector Maxim Karolik later acquired it from Hall’s heirs and donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Powers’ quilts are notable for their bold use of sconces for storytelling and for their comprehensive documentation. His use of technique and design demonstrates African and Afro-American influences. The use of applied motifs to tell stories is closely linked to artistic practices in the Republic of Benin, West Africa. The uneven squares suggest the syncope found in African-American music.
Only one image of Powers itself survives. The photograph, taken around 1897, shows her wearing a special apron with applied images of a moon, cross and sun or shooting star. Such heavenly bodies appear repeatedly in her quilts and are often carefully sewn in intricate ways, indicating their importance to her. These images may relate to or have religious significance to a fraternal organization. Powers’ interpretations of the two quilts have survived, although they are likely influenced by their recorders. Powers herself was probably illiterate and may have used the quilts as visual teaching aids to tell Bible stories.
In January 2005, Cat Holmes, a doctoral student in history at the University of Georgia, discovered the grave of Harriet Powers, as well as that of Powers’ husband and daughter. The gravestone, which was discovered in the historic Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, reveals that Powers died on January 1, 1910.
She was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement in 2009.