The Power of Powers’ Quilt

The cultural artifact that I chose to study was a quilt made by Harriet Powers in 1886. Quilting had been an important part of African American life long before Powers made this quilt. In fact, during slavery quilting was a job that needed to be done in order to survive. Slave women worked all day in the fields or in the master’s house, and then would go back home in the evening and work on extra activities such as quilting in a process known as subsistence production. Though exhausting, night-time quilting was done so that the slaves and the slaves’ master could have blankets. If the slaves decided not to create these quilts in their spare time, then they would have to rely on the amiability of the master for blankets, and slave masters were not exactly known for their charitableness. After emancipation, African American women continued to make quilts. Part of this was due to the fact that producing one’s own quilt was still a necessity for many people living with little to no money. However, some African American women who led fortunate lives after emancipation continued to create quilts even though they were not required to do so. Quilt making had become a tradition for women during slavery, and that tradition lived on after slavery ended.
One of my hobbies is designing and creating quilts, so when I first learned about the importance of quilt making to African Americans, I knew that I wanted to use one as my cultural artifact. Part of the reason I chose this particular quilt was because it was one of the only ones I could find. This is because Powers’ quilt is one of the only ones from it’s time to survive to this day, and it is currently held in a museum. However, I also found Powers’ quilt to be intriguing. According to the woman that Powers eventually sold the quilt to, each block of the quilt tells a story inspired by the bible, so Powers found her inspiration from her religion. While the quilt was being showcased in 1886, the quilt was noted for its unique and bold designs. Like the people of the fair, I was also drawn to this quilt when I first saw it. I also find it fascinating that Powers used quilting to tell stories on a subject that she was very passionate about. Overall, I chose this particular quilt because quilting has become one of my favorite hobbies and I thought that this quilt’s design and history was very interesting.
As stated earlier, the creator of this quilt is Harriet Powers. Powers was born a Georgian slave in 1837. She married a man named Armstead Powers. They had several children together, and after emancipation they decided to seek a prosperous life through landowning. When Powers first created this quilt she showed it off at the Athens Cotton Fair of 1886, but she did not want to sell it. Even after she did sell the quilt, the buyer remarked, “After giving me a full description of each scene [of the quilt] with great earnestness, she departed but has been back several times to visit the darling offspring of her brain” (Southern Quilting). Knowing how proud Powers was of her quilt and how much she cared for it makes one think that originally, the sole purpose of making the quilt was for her enjoyment.
This quilt was created in 1886. This is about 20 years after the end of the Civil War and after emancipation. So, this time period was filled with both hope and uncertainty as African Americans began to figure out what it was going to mean to them to be “free”. On the one hand, African Americans were no longer bound by slavery. Never again would any citizen have to face the horrors of lawfully-backed slavery. For the first time in a long time, African Americans had the chance to make a fortune for themselves and have a successful life. Like Harriet Powers’ family, many tried to own and make a profit off of the land. Others became entrepreneurs. Some people worked in construction sites. No matter what the job was, the goal for African Americans after emancipation was to make a good life for themselves.
On the other hand, however, life after emancipation was anything but ideal for African Americans. Debt peonage, white violence, exploitation of workers, and several other obstacles caused many African Americans’ lives to seem a bit too similar to how it was before slavery. Even though emancipation had meant the end of slavery, it did not mean the end of African American suffering. So, this quilt was made during a very important and very complex era in the history of African Americans. It was a time that was filled with hope and determination for a better life, but it was also a time period of suffering and pain.
Powers’ quilt was significant to the era after emancipation for several reasons. For one thing, the creation and selling of the quilt was representative of the lives of many African Americans after emancipation. The quilt was originally created with a lot of pride from Powers, and she refused to sell it. It was her own creation and she did not need to sell it to others. This symbolizes the hopefulness that was just mentioned of freed African Americans during the late 1800’s. However, Powers’ family, like many African American families, found that they were not able to access the resources needed to live a good life. The quilt ended up being sold to a southern white woman when Powers was desperate for the money. In fact, the buyer of the quilt only paid half the amount of money that Powers wanted for the quilt, and Powers had no choice but to accept. When asked about the encounter, the buyer of the quilt retold that “Harriet 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. Harriet went out to consult her husband and reported that he said she had better take the five dollars” (National Museum of American History). So, the quilt that Powers created reflects the mixture of hope and pride that African Americans had following emancipation, and the unfortunate reality that many of them faced. This significance does not change as time goes on. Its significance is a symbol of African American life during the second half of the 19th century, and no amount of time will change this so long as this historical time is not forgotten.
There are many things that the course Introduction to African American Studies has taught me that was used in this blog and used to relate to the quilt. First, the course explained the subsistence production that African Americans participated in on plantations. As explained earlier, one of the items that was created during subsistence production was quilts. The course taught about quilting parties that plantations would have and how quilt-making was a big part of African American life during slavery. So, the tradition and origin of quilt-making for African Americans is largely influenced by subsistence production. Because of this, Powers’ quilt is also deeply related to subsistence production because Powers may not have had the knowledge or resources to make her quilt if subsistence production had never been established.
In addition, the course thoroughly explained the conditions of African Americans in the era following emancipation. It was through this course that I was able to understand the complexities of African American life once they were “freed”. In addition, I was able to get a better grasp of a historical timeline in my head due to the course. Having a solid understanding of the chronology of African American history has helped me to make sense of the things being taught. For instance, I would not have been able to understand the meaning of selling the quilt if I had not already learned that African Americans were barely getting by after emancipation. All in all, without the knowledge I gained from the course, it would not have been possible to write this blog.

-Sara Standish2

Works Cited

“1885 – 1886 Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt.” National Museum of American    History. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. <http://americanhistory.si.edu       /collections/search/object/nmah_556462>.

“Harriet Powers.” Southern Quilting. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/quilt/harriet.html&gt;.

“Pictorial Quilt.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. <http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/pictorial-quilt-116166&gt;.

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