BHM: African American Quilters as Historians pt II

loomsmelroseplantation(looms used by slave women at Melrose Plantation)

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.

Early Quilters

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 harrietconsidered 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.

harrietsbiblequilt(Harriet Powers’ quilt 1886)

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 inmar2 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 libsilkon 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.

Tribute Quilts

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



  1. The Anyone Can Fly Foundation
  2. Fry. Stitched from the Soul. NY: Dutton Studio Books, 1990.
  3. Lyons. Stitching Stars. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993.


  1. Looms of Melrose Plantation. unattributed
  2. Harriet Powers. photographer unattributed.
  3. “Jacobs Ladder: Applique Story Quilt” Harriet Powers. 1886
  4. unnamed applique story quilt for faculty wives at Atlanta University. Harriet Powers. 1896
  5. Martha Ann Rick. portrait unattributed.
  6. 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.)

24 thoughts on “BHM: African American Quilters as Historians pt II

  1. Pingback: Weekend roundup: Oh, for dog’s sake! edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  2. hi susurro,
    ‘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.’
    is brilliant…
    we love this post. and would like to use it for launching of raven’s eye. here is the link to the alpha version of the site:
    please let us know if we could cross post this piece by emailing me at

    thank you.

    • welcome to the blog mama. normally I say no to these things, I like my quiet little pseudo-anonymity, however I think this project is really important and I completely support your proaction in the face of the drama that started it, so feel free to cross-post, just link back here please. If you want anything else along the way, just let me know.

      (love your blog by the way)

  3. Pingback: African American Quilters as Historians pt 2 « Raven’s Eye

  4. There is some excellent information in this post, and I’m glad to see more about Martha Ann Ricks. However, calling Harriet Powers “the mother of African-American quilting” isn’t accurate, and does a disservice to the quilters, both slave and free, who preceded her. Powers was an important and original artist, but she wasn’t the mother of a tradition that is known to predate her by several decades.

    • So I’m just seeing your comment at Raven’s Eye and I wanted readers to have the info you left there. So I am cutting and pasting, if that isn’t ok, let me know:

      the first known African-American quilter may be Kadella, who made the quilter attributed to her around 1810, almost twenty years before Harriet Powers was even born. Another African-American quilter who was active before Powers was Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, who stitched a marvelous quilt from Mrs. Lincoln’s old ballgowns.

    • Some how I deleted my original comment, so here it is again:

      Welcome to the blog Ellid. I agree that quilting predates her by more than decades. I’m not sure if you read part 1 in this post series; in pt 1, I discuss both African quilting and slave quilts before focusing in on early post-slavery quilters like Ricks & Powers. I refer to Powers as “the mother of af-am quilting” in quotations in the post b/c it is a quote and have provided the link not just the citation to make that clearer. It was something several of the sources I consulted said including text and quilters.

      I chose these two quilters b/c of the number of times they appear in the historical record, available images of their quilts, and the stated influence they had on other quilters I planned on highlighting in pt. 3 of this series.

      Are there particular women quilters in the post-slavery period who are these women’s contemporaries that you think should have been highlighted?

      • I was thinking particularly of Elizabeth Keckley, but there are others. Have you read Stitched in the Soul? It has some excellent information about pre-Civil War quilting by slave and freedwomen.

        I do think that Harriet Powers was an extraordinary quilter, and I wish the quilt owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston weren’t too fragile for display. She also appliqued at least one apron using the same sunburst pattern from her quilts (I think there’s a photo of her wearing the apron in Roderick Kiracofe’s book on American quilting). I can’t help but wonder about work of hers that didn’t survive, or what her influence on local quilters and her family might have been….

      • Hi again. I had only skimmed it when I wrote this post but I have packed it in my bag and am reading it closely on the flight (along with another book). 😀 It’s really great!

        These posts took a long time for me to do, but I think you’re right there definitely should be one between this one and the contemporary one that does a better job with the people you mentioned here and at Raven’s Eye. Thanks for pointing them out.

        I too wish that her stuff was able to be displayed. Can you imagine how great it would be if they had regularly collected and preserved black women’s textile work back then? You’re right, we’d learn so much about their lives and their craft.

    • welcome to the blog Kyra. it’s an honor, the work you do documenting black quilters on your blog is amazing. 😀

  5. this message has been removed by blog owner. If you want to advertise a product or publication please use media available for this purpose. for additional information abt advertising on this blog see post on hit and run comments

  6. Hello All,
    I am writing to invite you to an art exhibit, my quilts will be displayed at the Sumner School Musuem 17th and M Street N.W Washington, DC. Showing dates September 28, 2009- Jan 4, 2010 I am a member of the Prince George’s Artists Association and other quilt quilds. The QuiIts I have made on display depict my Afro and European influences from 1800’s to the present. Each quilt has its story. Including 21st centry technology computerized sewing machines, digitized images converted into thread, stitch count and sewing patterns. One quilt presented is a new technic called Electric Needle turn which was presented to me by Geri Ford inventor. This quilt is named Japanese Fans. Come take a look.


    • welcome to the blog Cynthia. Normally I have a policy against adverts in comments on blog but I’m excited you thought to invite our readers & b/c of the traffic generated on this post, I can think of no better place to put it to get the word out. It sound like an exciting event. I wish you all the best with the showing!

  7. Clearly your open minded and receptive to other ideas. Many people in the online community are a little more totalitarian. im gonna bookmark ur site ;D Of course– and I probably shouldn’t even have to say this– people are free to run their own blogs as they see fit. But I get the highest value from blogs where either A) the author’s writing is so outstanding that the lack of comments isn’t material or B) a combination of good writing and good comments. leaving my personal Research weblog if you dont mind Arabic names

  8. Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.

  9. Hey, this post is fantastic. I really think you should write more like this. I’ll be back to check out your next post. Thanks a lot, have a great day!

  10. Greetings, I just wanted to take the time to leave a comment and tell you how much I like your blog. I think what you write about is very interesting. Please continue to update your blog and I will be back to check it out!

  11. Hello, I’ve been doing some research on Harriet Powers recently and it has been proven that she was indeed literate. Fortunately her master’s children help her learn to read and write.

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