Artistic Allegories of Black Cultural and Spiritual Lives: Harriet Powers, Enslaved Quilt Artist in Nineteenth Century Georgia, U.S.
By Rebecca J Fraser, School of Art, Media, and American Studies, UEA
Resisting racial tropes and fighting for full civic equality and social justice for Black people, enslaved and free, in nineteenth century America, were the central ambitions of Black men and women who we might now term intellectuals. Yet, the spoken and the written word have typically been the primary means through which their intellectual work has been gauged. However, my recent book Black Female Intellectuals in Nineteenth Century America: Born to Bloom Unseen? highlights the diverse nature of intellectual labour by Black women living and working in the United States, questioning their exclusion from the hallowed term of the “intellectual,” and subsequently increasing their visibility within such histories.
Harriet Powers, an enslaved quilt artist, is one of the women that the book explores.
Harriet Powers was born into slavery in Athens, Georgia, around the 29 October 1837. She was enslaved to John and Nancy Lester and married Armstead Powers, another enslaved labourer, at the age of eighteen. Together she and Armstead had 9 children and at least one, Amanda, (but no doubt more), are recorded as being born into slavery.
Rooted in the histories of African enslavement on the North American mainland, needlecraft — including quilting — developed as both a practical and artistic skill among Black women across several generations. Harriet was undoubtedly charged with various labours associated with needle and thread for the Lester household. She would have also engaged these skills in emotional labour for her own family — Armstead and the children — putting her abilities to use in order to mend and make clothes for them, and to create quilts and blankets for comfort and warmth. Yet, she was also an exceptionally gifted and skilful quilt artist. She created some beautiful pieces that spoke to several themes of Black intellectual thought at the time — salvation, sacrifice, and freedom – through her own unique creative craftsmanship.
Her talents were put on public display locally after the Civil War (1861-1865), with the “Bible Quilt’ being exhibited in the ‘Negro Building’ at the Cotton States and Internal Exposition in Atlanta, 1895. This quilt was described by one of its admirers, Lorene Diver, as a “Sermon in Patchwork.” Powers second extant piece, “Pictorial Quilt,” produced in 1898, narrated a mixture of both stories drawn from the Bible — the Fall and the Redemption for example — with miraculous cosmic and weather events much closer to home, a warning to white people about sinning against God through their exploitation of others, particularly Black people.
Panel Images (left to right) 1. Adam and Eve in Garden of Eden; 2. Adam, Eve, and Cain in the Garden of Eden; 3. Satan and the seven stars; 4. Muder of Abel by Cain; 5. Cain in Land of Nod to find a wife; 6. Jacob's dream; 7. Baptism of Jesus; 8. Crucifixion; 9. Judas and his thirty pieces of silver; 10. Last Supper; 11. Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
Panel Images (left to right) 1. Job praying for his enemies, crosses, and coffin; 2. Dark Day of 19 May 1780; The serpent lifted up by Moses and mother bringing her children to see it being healed; 3. The serpent lifted up by Moses and mother bringing her children to see it being healed; 4. Adam and Eve in Garden of Eden; 5. John baptizing Christ and spirit of God descending and resting upon his shoulder; Second row: 6. Jonah cast over board and swallowed by whale; 7. God created two of every kind; 8. Falling of the stars, 13 Nov 1833; 9. Two of every kind continued; 10. The angels of wrath and seven vials; Third row: 11. Cold Thursday, 10 Feb 1895; 12. The red light night of 1846; 13. Rich people who were taught nothing of God; 14. Creation of animals continues; 15. Crucifixion of Christ between two thieves with Mary and Martha weeping at feet.
Academic understandings of Powers’ quilts have previously assumed that she was illiterate and that she recalled the stories used for her quilt panels from memory. However a single sheath of paper written by Harriet dated 28 January 1896 and filed in the Keokuk Public Library Archives confirms that she had in fact begun to learn to read when she was 11, courtesy of the local white children. Thus, her biblical stories were translated directly from the page onto cloth. Moving Powers’ historical biography from that of an illiterate enslaved girl and freedwoman to an accomplished and talented quilt artist thus shifts the historian’s frame of references towards the symbolism and underlying meanings of the quilt panels that she stitched and the messages that she sought to convey.
Find more about Harriet Powers and other Black Female Intellectuals in Nineteenth Century America in Rebecca’s new book Black Female Intellectuals in Nineteenth Century America: Born to Bloom Unseen? available through its publisher, Routledge.