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A SPIRITUAL CONNECTION

I would like to conclude this essay with some personal thoughts and experiences related to the Powers Bible quilts. I really do not remember the exact date—though the year was 1972—when I first saw the Smithsonian-owned quilt. What I do remember is making a routine visit to the National Museum of American History and noticing an extraordinary quilt hanging alone on the museum's second level. The inscription read simply:

Made by Harriet

An ex-slave

Athens, Georgia

Here was the quilter's entire life summarized in three lines! But I thought how sad it was that the person who had made this wonderful art was not even identified by her last name.

When I returned to my normal routine, I did not forget “the quilt” and began visiting it regularly every Saturday afternoon. Fortunately, there was a bench in front of it, so I could sit, take in a full view of the work, and meditate on it. These were truly mystical experiences. I felt drawn to the quilt. But so many questions swirled in my mind: Who was Harriet? What was her history? How much was known about her life? What was her last name? Did she make any other quilts that had survived? If so, where were they? What did this extraordinary woman look like? When did she live?

My interest in Harriet Powers became more focused that same year as I prepared to present a paper to the American Folklore Society on her and another African American quilter. The summer before my paper was due, I made a routine business trip to Boston, where, finding myself with a free afternoon, I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. After viewing the museum's permanent collection and perusing the gift


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shop, I asked at the information desk if the museum owned any African American quilts, and, even more boldly, whether I could see a textile curator. When the curator appeared, she responded to my question about the quilts by saying, “Yes, we have several. The most important one was made by Harriet Powers.” It took a few minutes for me to connect the Harriet of the Smithsonian to the Harriet Powers of the Boston museum, but when I did, I exploded with inner excitement: “There is another quilt! I have a last name!” And then the curator said, “Would you like to see it?”

She took me to a storage facility on the museum's lower level. There I watched as she removed the quilt from a box and from its acid-free paper. I am not sure I was breathing while watching this process. But at last the quilt was spread out on a worktable and I was handed a pair of white gloves. Then the curator said, “I have to return to make an important phone call. Do you mind staying here by yourself for a few minutes?” At that she left, and, alone now, I touched the quilt, felt the raw, unprocessed cotton inside, looked closely at the various pieces of calico and other types of fabric Harriet Powers had used, and examined her quilting stitches, which I observed were fairly large to accommodate the raw cotton in the middle layer. My thoughts tumbled over each other. Harriet Powers's hands had touched this fabric, composed this square. The connection I felt with her at that moment was mystical. Then the curator returned. As I left, I remember thanking her for agreeing to see me on an unscheduled visit, but my mind was in a daze. “There are two of them! There are two of them!”

I presented my paper at the Folklore Society in Nashville, Tennessee, in the fall of that year, showing images of quilts by both Harriet Powers and Clementine Hunter (a Louisiana folk artist), as well as the animals in the Fon tapestries that resembled those of both artists. I had even visited the Benin embassy in Washington, D.C., to photograph its collection of tapestries, including one of a magnificent peacock. Once I had given the paper, I put Powers temporarily out of mind. But it seems that she was not through with me. During Christmas vacation in 1974, my telephone rang unexpectedly. I had an unlisted number, known only to family and friends, and the call came at a time of day, noon, when I was seldom home. The call was from the Georgia Council for the Arts asking me if I would be interested in coming to Athens, Georgia, for two weeks to research Harriet Powers's life—all expenses paid. The end product of this research would be an essay in a monograph


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to be entitled Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1776–1976. The call came on a Saturday; on Monday morning I was on my way to Athens, Georgia.

As a result of the research I did in Athens, the inscription on the plaque under Harriet Powers's quilt in the Smithsonian now reads:

Harriet Powers

An ex-slave

Born 1837, died 1911

Harriet Powers, at long last, had the beginnings of a personal history, and I had a new passion—nineteenth-century quilts—that eventually resulted in a book and three major exhibitions.

Having done so much work on the art and life of Harriet Powers, I now sometimes imagine her smiling down on me. In those moments I ask myself whether that smile means approval or encouragement, telling me that, though much has been done, more—much more—awaits unraveling. I like to think it is a bit of both.


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“A SERMON IN PATCHWORK”
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