Harriet Powers was born into slavery in 1837 in Athens, Georgia. Following the Civil War and Emancipation, Powers and her husband became landowners, and in 1886, she completed her well-admired Bible Quilt in time to exhibit it at the Athens Cotton Fair. There, it caught the attention of Jennie Smith, a local artist. Remembering her time at the Fair and her discovery of the quilt, she wrote: “[…] in one corner there hung a quilt – which ‘captured my eye’ and after much difficulty I found the owner, a negro woman, who lives in the country on a little farm whereon she and her husband make a respectable living.” Smith offered to purchase the quilt on the spot.
Powers’s quilt is narrative in nature, inspired by her memorization of church sermons. The eleven Biblical scenes depicted on the quilt are:
- Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
- Paradise with Adam and Eve and a son (either Cain or Abel)
- Satan amidst the seven stars
- Cain killing Abel
- Cain going to the land of Nod to find a wife
- Jacob’s dream (Jacob’s ladder)
- The baptism of Christ
- The crucifixion
- Judas Iscariot and the 30 pieces of silver
- The Last Supper
- The Nativity
It would be several years before Smith successfully achieved her goal of purchasing the quilt, only doing so after the Powers family fell on hard times in 1891. The quilt again garnered admiration as part of a display in the Negro Building at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States Exposition. According to Floris Barnett Cash, Powers’s quilt was reminiscent of West African tapestries. Thus, Powers was able to embrace the creative “American tradition while retaining elements from her African heritage” in a work that spoke volumes for the “dual cultural heritage of African-Americans.”
[From the exhibit Covering America: The Textile Heritage of 19th-Century Quilts]
- NMAH. “1885-1886 Harriet Powers’s Bible Quilt.” National Quilt Collection. Accessed October 20, 2022. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_556462.
- Cash, Floris Barnett. “Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-America Tradition.” The Journal of Negro History 80, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 30-41. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2717705.
* Featured image courtesy of the Library of Congress