The folk arts in early American history were heavily influenced by the slave trade, with many slaves exhibiting outstanding skills and talents that quickly became valued by the white population of the time. Of the many art forms that came to this country because of the slave trade, African quilt making is perhaps one of the most valued legacies of that era.
One African quilt maker of note during that time was Harriet Powers. Of all the quilts Powers made during her lifetime, only two are known to remain in existence today but they are showcased in two very prestigious locations – the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.
Powers was born on October 29, 1837, in Clark County, Georgia, near Athens. Both her parents were slaves. Not much more is known about her early life but her talent for turning an African quilt into a prized art form began when she exhibited a quilt at a cotton fair held in Athens in 1886. This quilt, called simply Bible Quilt 1886, caught the eye of Jennie Smith, who tried for years to buy the quilt from Powers but Powers wouldn’t sell it.
Smith viewed Powers African quilt with an artist’s eye. She was, after all, an artist herself and an art teacher at the Lucy Cobb Institute. Even though Powers wouldn’t part with her Bible quilt at the cotton fair, the ladies remained in contact over the years.
About five years after meeting Smith, Powers fell into financial hardship and finally sold the African quilt to Smith for $5 and an explanation of what Bible stories the appliquéd scenes on the quilt depict.
The history behind the second African quilt that remains of Powers body of work is less clear but it was made in 1898 and eventually landed in the possession of Maxim Karolik. Karolik was an opera singer who married into a very wealthy Boston family. An avid collector of early American art, Karolik donated this second Bible quilt to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where it can be viewed today.
It is believed Powers never learned to read or write but used her African quilt making as a means of conveying Biblical stories using piecework and appliqués, two quilting techniques borrowed from quilt makers in Africa.
Powers passed away on the very first day of 1910 and was buried in Athens, at the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery.