Set apart as an iconic work in the encyclopedic collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a 19th century quilt. The world-renowned Pictorial Quilt, depicting Biblical themes with bold and graphically animated vignettes, including figures both human and animal, is one of only two known surviving quilts made by Harriet Powers, an African-American woman who was born into slavery in 1837. Her other quilt, made a decade earlier and known as the Bible Quilt, is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
What we know about Harriet Powers emanates from the earlier quilt that she stitched, so let’s begin at that place in the story. The Bible Quilt made its auspicious debut to the general public when Powers placed it on exhibit at the Cotton Fair of 1886 in Athens, GA (thought to be the Northeast Georgia Fair held November 9-13, 1886). Among the individuals who were touched by seeing the quilt for the first time were two white women who would go on to record, in written form, the stories behind each block of the Bible Quilt. Whether from first-hand verbal dictation by the artist, or through personal reflections about Power’s artistry penned into a journal, these texts have enriched our ability to enter both the Bible Quilt and the Pictorial Quilt more fully, where one can palpably sense the artist’s deeply-rooted spiritual core that breathes life into these precious textiles.
The Bible Quilt’s presence at the Cotton Fair of 1886 captured the attention of Jennie Smith (1862—1946), a young artist and teacher. Smith approached Powers to buy the quilt, but the maker was unwilling at the time to part with it. At a later date, when her finances were tighter, Powers responded positively to another inquiry from Smith, who at the time was only able to pay one half of Power’s asking price of ten dollars:
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 further enveloped in a crocus sack…She offered it for ten dollars, but I only had five to give…After giving me a full description of each scene with great earnestness, and deep piety she departed, but has been back several times to visit the darling offspring of her brain. She was only in a measure consoled for its loss when I promised to save her all my scraps.”
~ Jennie Smith, Handwritten essay, c. 1891, Textile Department, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.
1n 1895, Smith placed the Bible Quilt on display at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, GA, where African-Americans were given a separate exhibition venue. It was here that Lorene Curtis Diver (1846—1922), another pivotal figure in this story, first laid eyes on the quilt, having traveled the long distance from Keokuk, IA to attend the fair. The quilt made a deep impression—she would later write about it as “A Sermon in Patchwork.” Diver’s pressing desire to own the quilt persisted even after she received the following note from its owner, presumably in response to an inquiry:
Received of Harriet Powers a Biblical Quilt for which I gave her five dollars and enough calico to make another quilt.”
Copy of letter from Jennie Smith to Mrs. James B. Diver, Keokuk, IA in the Lorene C. Diver file, Lee County Historical Society
What we owe to Lorene Divers’ determined interest to own the Bible Quilt, now at the Smithsonian, is a gift of invaluable text that offers us important information about the quilt’s maker. It also provides proof that Powers created at least five quilts, leaving us to wonder what might have happened to the other fruits of her creative hands and mind. After tracking down her mailing address, Divers sent Powers a letter, to which the following reply was received:
Jan 28th 1896
The life of Harriet Powers. Born in Madison Co. 8 miles from Athens on the Elberton Road in the year Oct. 29, 1837. Her mistress was Nancy Lester. I commenced to learn at 11 years old and the white children learn me by sound on a popular leaf. On Sundays after that I __on books and done my own studying. I was married to Armsted Powers 1855. When I was free I moved to Dondy, Ga. In 1872 I made a quilt of 4 thousand and 50 diamonds.
In 1886 we moved to Athens and in 1887 I represented the star quilt in the colored fair association of Athens – Mr. Madison Davis, Pres, E. W. Bridy, clerk. The quit of mine taken the premium.
In 1882 I became a member of the Mt. Zion Baptist church. Then I visited Sunday school and read the Bible more than ever. Then I composed a quilt of the Lord’s Supper from the New Testament. 2 thousand and 500 diamonds.
In the year 1888, I composed and completed the quilt of Adam And Eve in the Garden of Eden—afterward sold it to Miss. Jennie Smith, and it was represented by her at the Exposition in Atlanta. I was there at the Ex — Dec. 26, 1896.
I am the mother of 9 children—6 dead and 3 living. I am 58 years old.
After leaving Atlanta it was said that I was dead—it was not so, for I was at the Exposition because I present the Governor of the colored department a watermelon Christmas gift. I am enjoying good health in Athens, Ga.
This I accomplish
Copy of letter from Harriet A. Powers to Mrs. James B. Diver, Keokuk, IA in the Lorene C. Diver file, Lee County Historical Society.
The above letter from Harriet Powers survives as a hand-written copy, possibly in the hand of Lorene Divers. There are inconsistencies on some of the dates. Nevertheless, the scarcity of personal records from African-American women in this period of history underscores the significance of Powers’ surviving quilts and their associated texts—and the potency they convey as physical embodiments of a person’s life, faith, and sensibility so exuberantly expressed. For me, these objects carry and transmit value beyond measure.
Looking at the Pictorial Quilt up close is to commune with the stitching hands of its creator while gazing into the eyes of history and bearing witness to moments in time that are remembered throughout generations. On this July 4, 2018, I’m inspired to include the image below of one quilt block in particular, situated squarely in the middle of the Pictorial Quilt:
The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833. The people were frightened and thought that the end had come. God’s hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds.”
~ Harriet Powers, dictating the story illustrated in this Pictorial Quilt block
The “falling of the stars” as seen by those who witnessed the Leonid meteor storm of 1833 must have been a most amazing sight to behold! The storm was an unusually active display of meteors—specks of debris from a Halley-type comet, often as small as grains of sand—that briefly streak across the sky as they burn up in the atmosphere. It was a significant and memorable event, described as the sky “literally filled with fireworks.” People were said to be terrified, and that many believed it was the end of the world! The phrase “Stars Fell on Alabama” became a hit song in 1934, appeared as the title of a book published that same year, and graced Alabama license plates from 2002-2009.
The contents of this post about Harriet Powers and her quilts are greatly informed by Kyra E. Hicks’ book, This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces (Black Threads Press, 2009). Hicks offers us a highly personal account of her research journey, and documents comprehensive resources pertaining to the quilts’ histories, annotated bibliographies, and timelines.
The MFA’s treasured quilt by Harriet Powers will continue to be the subject of future posts! In the meantime, I invite you to explore close-up images and descriptions of each of the fifteen quilt blocks, as told in the artists’ own words, on our collections page at mfa.org.