Quilting A Legend

October 29, 1837
African-American Folk Artist Harriet Powers was Born

What are your favorite ways to tell a story? Some people write their stories; others act them out in plays or dances. Harriet Powers quilted her stories.

African-American folk artist Harriet Powers was born into slavery in rural Georgia on October 29, 1837. She used her quilts to record local historical legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events, using a traditional applique technique–stitching cut-out shapes of fabric onto the quilt.

One hundred years after Powers was born, Mayme Reese shared her memories of quilting in turn-of-the-century South Carolina.

“Sometimes rich white women would hear that such and such a person had won the prize for pretty quilts, they’d come and ask that person to make them a quilt . . . Sometimes they’d make it and sometimes they wouldn’t . . . If they did make it, they’d get around five dollars . . .”

Harriet Powers was in her sixties when she sold one of her quilts to a Southern white woman named Jennie Smith for five dollars because she needed the money. Giving up her beautiful creation was difficult, and she returned to the Smith house several times to visit the quilt.

Powers’s quilts are on display at the Smithsonian Institution and are featured in the online exhibition, Seven Southern Quilters. What story could you tell with a quilt?