The Triumph of Harriet Powers
By Carolyn Warfield
Farri Concepts Art Education
Sewing during the antebellum period gave black women self-expression and self-esteem. Such metaphors describe the artistic creativity of Harriet Powers (1837-1910), who did all the right things as a faith-filled, spiritual woman. Later she married Armstead Powers and gave birth to two children in slavery and one following the Civil War. A devoted wife and mother, Harriet designed striking applique’ textiles in spite of the legal restrictions which prescribed what she could say and do. Powers achieved literacy, and the couple owned land and homestead after the Civil War. The 1870 census documented the family after Emancipation.
Powers’ sewing was under compensated. Since death, her character has been misrepresented. In recent years her quilt designs were misappropriated by commoditization. STILL, Harriet Powers’ exquisite needlework is preserved as living history. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Gladys-Marie Fry and Kyra Hicks for respecting our ancestor enough to authenticate her historical record. Hicks’ new reference “This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces” is scholastically refreshing and gives substantially to the cannon of African American textile history. Hicks’ human flow of describing the collateral events surrounding Power’s textiles is intriguing as is the genealogical thread her research binds. Kyra Hicks’ biographical study of Harriet Powers is a treasure trove of consequence.
Harriet Powers in Historical Context
Powers’ birth in 1837 earmarked a crucial period in American history when slaves were forcibly transported to new locations after Indian removal in the 1830s. The American Revolution enhanced the power of the planter class in the Lower South whereby the loss of slave labor in the war conjured talk of more slaves. The boom of the Georgia trade following the Revolution laid the ground work for the great forced migration of the 19th century. Moreover, the invention of the cotton gin fortified slavery in the Black Belt, yet other factors converged to make Georgia what it became. Last of the thirteen British colonies founded in 1733, Georgia was dedicated to the ideals of founder James Oglethorpe, Carolina slaveholder and administrator of the Royal Africa Company, a heavily involved British company in the transatlantic slave trade. Georgia gave statutory recognition to slavery in 1750 and benefited as one of the six plantation colonies in British North America where indigo, rice and cotton were cash crops. According to Daina Ramey Berry, Ph.D., it was not uncommon for slaves to work on both rice and cotton plantations owned by the same planter. The commercialization of cotton spawned Industrial Revolutions in England and the United States. Cotton emerged as King while the U. S. and England were major trading partners. The world demand for cotton generated economic growth in the agricultural South and fueled manufacturing in the North where mills transformed cotton into fabric.
My paternal great-grandfather and Harriet Powers were born enslaved in 1837, in different locales. He was born in Kentucky a major player in domestic slave trading in the Lower South. Cotton was instrumental in forming breeding farms in Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky which supplied labor for large plantations in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Infant Harriet was unaware of the 1837 Louisiana cotton market crash which crippled America’s economic bubble, or that Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee from Georgia on the Trail of Tears in 1838 to make way for the expansion of white settlers, slaves and cotton. By the 1840s the old Southwest reflected the flourishing growth of King Cotton up to and during the Civil War.
Georgia seceded from the Union on January 19, 1861. As the War erupted, more than 450,000 bondspeople were engaged in the most labor-intensive and violent slavery from pressure to work harder on cotton and rice plantations. Georgia was the major center of Confederate cotton production when William T. Sherman’s troops wrought destruction on the Confederates. Large quantities of Confederate money and cotton were burned!
Harriet Powers as Living History
Powers quilting skills demonstrate natural talent, training and practice from the lifeblood of private and public virtue. Harriet Powers’ textiles are timeless renditions of a joyful woman who believed in the spiritual reality of redemption and salvation which sustain hope. (Bondage violates divine law and natural rights of man.) She understood that cloth bestows vitality and connects the living to spiritual truth.