I recently stumbled on a story that I fascinated me. It is the story of Harriet Powers. She is considered to be one of the most skilled quilters of the 19th century. When looking at the 2 surviving quilts quilts of Harriet I cannot help but think that her work was inspirational for many quilt artists of her time and well beyond! With the understanding that there are only 2 quilts and only one picture of her (as well as one of her ancestor), this is a relatively quick article to perhaps wet your appetite to look into her further.
According to National Museum of American History, Harriet was born enslaved in Georgia in 1837 and “At a young age, she married Armstead Powers and they had at least nine children. Some time after the Civil War, they became landowners.” Harriet, and her work, seemed to have been forgotten until the 1970s.
The first quilt to be presented is Pictorial Quilt, a quilt with biblical story images that was gifted to a Reverend. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston states, “Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall received this quilt as a gift from a group of “faculty ladies” at Atlanta University in 1898…the women may have commissioned or purchased the quilt from Harriet Powers as a tribute to his achievement.” To see descriptions of the incredible blocks you can visit Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
The next quilt has an interesting story. In brief, Harriet made this quilt and it was exhibited in 1886 where one woman, Jennie Smith, according to the National Museum of American History, wrote, “”I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I had never seen an original design, and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork ‘” Smith tried to buy it from Harriet but she would not sell it. However years later she and her husband were in need of money and she reluctantly sold it to Smith for $5! You can read more of the story, which is fascinating and sad, at the National Museum of American History. It is, like the previous quilt, so incredibly artistic, emotional, and amazing. I can’t say enough about how her quilts touch me.
As mentioned, Harriet was forgotten to such a degree that her family did not know much of her life or story. One such person is her great great great granddaughter Alyse Minter. Alyse is a genealogist and a research librarian at the Library of Congress and began her own genealogical search. She googled her ancestor, Harriet, and found her picture and her story! According to wbur news, “”I recognized her face immediately,” Minter said. “My grandfather looks like her. My mother looks like her. My brother looks like her.”” She was able to go and see the quilts and feel a real connection. As someone who has, since I can remember, been researching family ancestry I find this an incredible story! Below is a picture of Alyse with Harriet’s quilts behind her.
While only 2 quilts have survived, as far as we know, there is evidence that more quilts were made by Harriet. According to Daily Art Magazine Harriet wrote a letter to someone, “indicating that she made at least five quilts. Powers mentioned that she made one of her quilts as early as 1882: ‘I composed a quilt of the Lord’s Supper from the New Testament. 2 thousand and 500 diamonds.’” It would be amazing if any of the other quilts had survived. But, with only 2 quilts to view we can truly understand what a wondrous quilt artist Harriet Powers was. I encourage you to click on some of the links provided and read more!