By Special to the Daily World
Harriet Powers was born into slavery, lived and died in relative obscurity within 50 miles of Athens, Ga., and yet is poised to become a household name in 2012. How is it possible that a woman, whose life was local, could have such a global impact?
Harriet was a storyteller. Stories are told in many ways. Some are written in prose or poetry, while some are drawn or photographed. Singers and dancers tell stories and some may be acted on the stage. Although she was not well schooled, Harriet Powers left her record of life and events in the 19th century American south by translating oral stories into quilts. She combined the West African style of appliqué with European style stitching to create unique “story quilts,” which are preserved today as remarkable pieces of both art and history.
Harriet’s quilts are considered some of the best folk art of the 19th century, and the thorough documentation, most of it in her own words, makes them historically priceless. One hangs in the American History Museum of the Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C., and one hangs in the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. An off-Broadway play was written and performed about her, called “Quilting in the Sun.” The 175th anniversary of her birth is in 2012, and currently there is a petition to issue a Harriet Powers Commemorative Stamp for the occasion.
After years of abandonment and neglect, the overgrown Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, where Harriet is buried, has been restored, thanks to a grant received by the East Athens Development Corporation.
Who is this woman who after so many years will get the recognition that she deserves both in her home state, and beyond?
Harriet Powers was born on Oct. 29, 1837, near Athens, Ga. She spent her early life on a plantation owned by John and Nancy Lester in Madison County. She married at 18 and began a family that would eventually include nine children.
In 1886 when Harriet was 49 years old, she had finished her first appliquéd story quilt and exhibited it at the Clarke County Cotton Fair.
The quilt was made of 299 separate pieces of fabric, depicting scenes from Bible stories and spirituals. The figures were colorful and stitched to a watermelon-colored background. Broken vertical strips divided the quilt into panels. In West African