Today is the birthday of the folk artist and quilt maker Harriet Powers, born into slavery outside Athens, Georgia (1837). She was married at 18 and gave birth to nine children. She lived most of her life in Clarke County, where in 1897, she began exhibiting her quilts at local cotton fairs. She was believed to have been a house slave and first learned to read with the help of the white children she cared for.
Powers quilts used a combination of hand and machine stitching along with appliqué to form small detailed panels. She then organized these squares to unfold a larger story, much like a modern graphic novel. This teaching style of quilting has its roots in West African coastal communities, and her uneven edging of panels mirrored the complex rhythms of African-American folk music. Through her quilts, she recorded legends and biblical tales of patience and divine justice. Only two pieces of her work have survived: Her Bible quilt of 1886, which she sold for $5 in the aftermath of the war, now hangs in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Her Pictorial quilt of 1888 is displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Powers’ work is now considered among the finest examples of Southern quilting from the 19th century.
The city of Athens held a centennial celebration in her honor in 2010, and the mayor officially declared October 30th as Harriet Powers Day.