Harriet Powers (1837-1910)
Powers was born into slavery near Athens on October 29, 1837, and lived more than half her life in Clarke County, mainly in Sandy Creek and Buck Branch. The first of the Powers quilts was displayed in 1886 at a cotton fair in Athens,
The history of the second quilt is less clear. One account indicates that the wives of Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) faculty members saw the first quilt in the Cotton States Exhibition in Atlanta in 1895 and decided to commission a second quilt by Powers. Another account suggests that the second quilt was purchased by the same faculty wives who may have seen it at the Nashville, Tennessee, Exposition in 1898. Regardless, the faculty wives presented the quilt to the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall of New York in 1898, while he was serving as the chairman of the board of trustees at Atlanta University. Subsequently, the folk art collector Maxim Karolik acquired it from Hall's heirs and donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Powers's quilts are remarkable for their bold use of appliqué for storytelling and for their extensive documentation. Her use of technique and design demonstrates African and African American influences. The use of appliquéd designs to tell stories is closely related to artistic practices in the republic of Benin, West Africa. The uneven squares suggest the syncopation found in African American music.
Only one image of Powers herself survives. The photograph, made about 1897, depicts her wearing a special apron with appliquéd images of a moon, cross, and sun or shooting star. Such celestial bodies appear repeatedly in her quilts and are often carefully stitched in complex ways, indicating their importance to her. These images may have related to a fraternal organization or had religious significance to her. Powers's interpretations of both quilts have survived, though they are likely influenced by their recorders. Powers herself probably was illiterate and may have used the quilts as visual teaching tools for telling biblical 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's husband and daughter. The headstone, which was uncovered at 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.
Regina A. Perry, Harriet Powers's Bible Quilts (New York: Rizzoli International, 1994).
Lee Shearer, "Famous Grave Found off Fourth Street," Athens Banner-Herald, January 10, 2005.
Ashley Callahan, Georgia Museum of Art
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.