Black History Month: Harriet Powers 

I’ve been looking at art linked to African American culture and am fascinated by the story of Harriet Powers.

Harriet Powers, 1901

Born a slave in 1837 in Athens, Georgia, Harriet married Armstead Powers in 1855. Freed after the Civil War, the family owned land and had a small farm.
Sadly, the economic downturn affected the family and eventually, her husband sold off the farm and left her in 1895.

Prior to this, Harriet had begun making quilts to tell stories. Two of her quilts survive:

Bible Stories

Smithsonian Institute of Art

and Pictorial Quilt

Museum of Modern Art, New York

In both, Harriet uses applique to tell stories that she would have grown up hearing.

The reason at least one of them survived was down to a woman by the name of Jennie Smith, who was an art teacher as well as an artist herself. She saw the quilt at a cotton fair and offered to buy it; Harriett refused. Jennie Smith takes up the story:

” 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”

It seems so sad that Harriet had to give up something so dear to her for so little. But had Jennie Smith not persevered in attempting to buy the quilt, it may not be with us today.