The Darling Offspring of Her Brain
The Bible Quilt
Harriett Angeline Powers were born on October 29, 1837 in Athens, Georgia. She grew up as slave property on the farm of John Lester in Madison County Georgia, just northeast of Athens. She ‘jumped the broom” and had an “away marriage” with Armsted Powers, several years her senior and the sole slave of James Nunn, who owned a farm roughly ten miles from the Lester’s farm. The date she married Amsted Powers is unknown. In 1865 when all African Americans became free citizen of the United States, they were able to successfully live together and prospered.
In 1871, Amsted and Harriett rented land in Sandy Creek, Georgia where they grew cotton, potatoes, and corn and raised cows, pigs and goats. By 1874 the couple had assets worth more than $350, and by 1880 they owned a four-acre farm in Sandy Creek. By the standards of all blacks at the time, the Powers were quite successful.
1881 Harriett bought a Singer sewing machine that she would use to make her quilts. She made the Bible Quilt, the first of her two quilts known to exist after purchasing the sewing machine. The quilt was made of eleven appliquéd blocks of irregular shape and size, each block depicting a scene from the bible.
In November 1886 she exhibited the Bible Quilt at the County fair in Athens, Georgia. This is where Jennie Smith, a young white artist, teacher and collector first saw the quilt. Though Powers had not used hand quilting techniques typically prized at the time-hers was sewn mostly by machine, her quilting stitches were not particularly fine, and she did not design her quilt according to a known pattern. However, Smith was captivated by the quilt and offered to buy it for ten dollars. Harriett turned down her offer; but Smith asked to be notified if she ever changed her mind.
By 1891, the Powers had fallen on hard times, and Harriett contacted Jennie Smith about selling her quilt.
“She arrived one afternoon in front of my door in an ox-cart with the precious burden in her lap encased in a crocus sack. She offered to sell it for ten dollars but I told her I only had five to give. After going out consulted with her husband she returned and said “owin to de hardness of the times, my old man lows I’d better tech hit.”
She obeyed, not being a new woman. Harriett gave Smith a “full description of each scene with great earnestness.” After the sale of the quilt Harriett returned several times to visit the “darling offspring of her brain.” Had Smith not recorded Power’s explanations of each block, there is little chance that the quilt would have been documented or preserved.
The Bible Quilt is currently stored at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The only other known surviving quilt; the Pictorial Quilt is stored the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA.
Gladys-Marie Fry, Ph.d, Stitched From the Soul
Regenia Perry, Harriett Power’s Bible Quilts
Roland L. Freeman, A communion of the SpiritsLucine Finch, A Sermon in Patchwork