While African American women quiltmakers made quilts for functional purposes, many also made story quilts or quilt art. The latter functioned to write African American lives back into the narrative of this nation even at a time when the quilt makers may have been largely illiterate, as in the case of late 1800s quilter Harriet Powers. The tradition of quilting was also past from grandmothers, to mothers, to female children, ensuring a continuation of women’s narratives and skills. In so doing, quiltmakers ensured that black female subjectivity remains present in the historical record; recent interest in women’s textiles has helped to reveal our stories in the cloth.
Harriet Powers (1837-1910) “the mother of African American quilting“
One of the earliest documented African American quilt maker was Harriet Powers. Powers exhibited her quilts at local fairs and considered them to be art. Her subject matter was the Bible and reflected the first form of English literacy amongst African American slaves. Powers could not read nor write, but like other slaves, she was taught the stories of the Bible. In order to pass this information on and honor her new found faith, she quilted them. She continued to do so after emancipation, managing to keep the quilts off the market while other black quilters used their skills to keep their families afloat.
Jennie Smith, a white school teacher and artist, saw the quilts at a fair and after Powers refused to sell them to her, she tracked down where Powers lived. For the next 5 years she would hound Powers to sell. Harriet Powers refused at the fair and during these visits for reasons that have escaped historical record. It was not until Powers and her husband fell on hard times that she consented to sell to Smith. But for all of her prior efforts, Smith decided she was unwilling to pay Powers’ price. Knowing Powers was desperate, Smith wrote of feeling both justified and deeply satisfied by offering only 1/2 of what Powers asked.
It was clear from Smith’s diary that Powers had not wanted to sell the quilt as she returned repeatedly to visit it. She also made sure to explain each panel to Smith in detail before finally relinquishing the quilt for half the sum she wanted/needed. As a result of this exchange, the two women were linked together for a period of time and the quilt survived long enough to be archived by the Smithsonian. Powers quilts were popular enough that the faculty wives at Atlanta University commissioned her to do a quilt in 1896, so despite the Smithsonian’s assertion that the coercive relationship between Smith and Powers was necessary for preservation, that may not have necessarily been the case.
The story behind some of the panels in Harriet Powers’ quilt, reflect the particular preoccupations and history of African Americans while still telling a Bible Story. The quilt above is about Jacob’s Ladder. According to Powers, the images depict slaves empathy for Jacob b/c he is one of them and their own desire for freedom (Lyons 1993).
(Harriet Powers quilt commissioned by faculty wives 1896)
According to Powers, a panel she did for her other preserved quilt (see bottom row center) is about “Bess the pig” who escapes Georgia and runs 500 miles to Virginia (ibid). Powers was born in Georgia in 1837 and West Virginia became a free state in 1863. Thus both quilts are about African American yearning for freedom, critique slavery, and active support of escape rather than the passive acceptance many thought was shared by house slave; all of this critical engagement was presented present to her audience in plain sight of plantation owners.
Martha Ann Ricks (1817- ?)
Martha Ann Ricks was one of Powers’ contemporaries and also a world famous quilter. Ricks was born into slavery in 1827 in Tennessee. At 13, she and her family were returned to Africa by the Tennessee Colonization Society who felt free blacks should not be allowed to remain in N. America. (Her father had bought their freedom a few years prior through a 12 year ministry raising funds, extolling the need for abolition, and spreading the gospel.) During the next several years, Ricks would perfect her quilting under her mother and grandmother’s tutelage and be inspired by Queen Victoria’s fight to keep Liberians and other Africans from being captured and re/sold into slavery. As a result, Ricks determined to make a quilt for the Queen.
Ricks story is a powerful one for women precisely because it highlights the strength and community of women in quilting. Ricks work became famous in England, the U.S. and Liberia through participation in local and national contests with other African American born textile makers all of whom eventually learned of Ricks’ desire to meet the Queen. Amidst the ridicule of her community and her husband, she managed to save the few coins she could spare to save for the trip and waited with the strength of a woman who would not be moved.
Her story reached the ears of Miss Jane Roberts, the Liberian President’s widow, who came to see the quilt. As a result, Roberts not only helped her raise the funds but also sent a letter to the Liberian Ambassador to England on Ricks’ behalf. He in turn, wrote the Queen.
At the age of 76, Ricks traveled to England. In 1892, by invitation of the Queen, Martha Ann Ricks presented Queen Victoria with the Coffee Tree Quilt at Windsor Castle. The quilt had 300 leaves, most with plump red berries appliqued on a white background; the entire quilt was bordered by an alternating leaf and berry border. The Coffee Tree quilt design honored African American life in Liberia where the tree grew in abundance and represented economic security for many settlers, including Ricks. It also reflected what Fry (1990) calls a particular African American innovation in quilting, which often included the incorporation of natural elements and variations of leaf patterns not seen prior.
Not only did this nature quilt tell the basic story of economic survival of the Liberian colony through the coffee tree, the presentation of the quilt to the Queen sparked international interest in the lives and textile work of African American and African women. Powers visit occurred just one year prior to that of Ida B. Wells and in the midst of an influx of black female intellectuals from N. America discussing the rights and needs of black people and women. There is not enough historical record to know what kind of influence Ricks’ presence might have had on these discussion but given her father’s own struggle to free his family from slavery, Ricks’ long life in Liberia where the Queen had actively committed troops to protect black people from re-enslavement, and the inspiration for Ricks’ visit being her own admiration for the Queen’s anti-slavery stance, there had to be some discussion of the importance of black freedom, black women’s roles and needs, etc. that resonated with the anti-lynching campaigns and feminist discussions going on with Wells, Carson, and other black feminists and the feminist and social justice societies that invited them to England to speak.
Regardless of the overall content of their discussion, Queen Victoria was so impressed with the quilt and Ricks that she sent Ricks home with both gifts and a royal escort. One can only imagine that among these gifts was a sample of the Queen’s own textile work since what ultimately brought them together was both the love of independent women and the urge to express oneself through textile.
Despite the visit being reported widely in British papers and the display of the quilt by Queen Victoria at the World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago in 1893, one of the largest fairs of its type, Ricks story and work were not entered into the history books until African American quilter Kyra E. Hicks wrote Black Threads with African American historian Cuesta Benberry, and the children’s book Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria, based on archival data and oral history with Ricks surviving family members. Part of the problem, is illustrated in the caption from the World Columbian Expo placed infront of Ricks’ quilt which reads “uncivilized Africans exhibits.” (see image to the right). Again, because people of African descent were believed to be uncivilized and uncivilizable, their art and textile work would not have been considered worthy of archiving. Remember that this exhibit, and others like it, were part of the “race science” narrative I outlined in my post about the NY Post cartoon.
Similar connections between modern black female quilters and our earliest remembered black female quilters occured with tributes to Harriet Powers as well. Her quilt and portrait were redone as a single quilt honoring her by African American female quilters Marelene Obryant-Seabrook, who uses the second quilt from above, and Peggie L. Hartwell, who uses the first one.
Infact, tribute quilts became one of the ways that modern quilts help keep alive the herstory of African American women artists, quilters, poets, and thinkers. More to come
- The Anyone Can Fly Foundation
- Fry. Stitched from the Soul. NY: Dutton Studio Books, 1990.
- Lyons. Stitching Stars. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
- Looms of Melrose Plantation. unattributed
- Harriet Powers. photographer unattributed.
- “Jacobs Ladder: Applique Story Quilt” Harriet Powers. 1886
- unnamed applique story quilt for faculty wives at Atlanta University. Harriet Powers. 1896
- Martha Ann Rick. portrait unattributed.
- Coffee Tree Quilt. Martha Ann Ricks. 1892. (Image from Kilburn sterereview Image taken at the World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago in 1893 on display at the NH Public Library.)