Harriet Powers



Born a slave in Georgia in 1837, Harriet Powers created two quilts which are the best known and well preserved examples of Southern American quilting tradition still in existence. Using the traditional African applique technique along with European record keeping and biblical reference traditions, Harriet records on her quilts local historical legend, Bible stories, and astronomical phenomena. Her quilts were first seen at a crafts fair by an artist, a Southern white woman named Jennie Smith. Ms. Smith, who kept a diary and upon first meeting Harriet, recalls -- "I found the owner, a negro woman, who lived in the country on a little farm whereon she and her husband made a respectable living. She is about sixty five years old, of a clear ginger cake color, and is a very clean and interesting woman who loves to talk of her 'old miss' and life 'befo de wah.' " At first Harriet Powers was unwilling to sell her quilts to Ms. Smith. Yet when she and her family came into financial difficulty she agreed to sell them. Ms Smith writes -- " Last year I sent her word that I would buy it if she still wanted to dispose of it. She arrived one afternoon in front of my door in an ox-cart with the precious burden in her lap encased in a clean flour sack, which was still enveloped in a crocus sack. She offered it for ten dollars, but I told her I only had five to give. After going out consulting with her husband she returned and said 'Owin to de hardness of de times, my ole man lows I'd better tech hit.' Not being a new woman she obeyed. After giving me a full description of each scene with great earnestness, she departed but has been back several times to visit the darling offspring of her brain. She was only in measure consoled for its loss when I promised to save her all my scraps." Although it was certainly painful for Mrs. Powers to sell her quilts, doing so she thus, unknowingly, preserved them for future generations. They are now on display in the Smithsonian. One of her quilts is displayed below.



Return to Southern Quilters