Two large quilts inside a glass case dominated a dimly-lit room at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was the last weekend of the exhibit “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories,” and the gallery bustled with visitors. Alyse Minter stood in front of the case, taking in the kaleidoscope of faded pinks and blues punctuated by the occasional pop of orange, still bright despite its age.
“These are obviously public treasures,” Minter said. “But they’re also a piece of my family history.”
Minter is the great-great-great granddaughter of the maker of the quilts, Harriet Powers. Powers, who was born in 1837 in Georgia, is widely considered to be the progenitor of African American story quilt tradition, admired for her expressive original designs depicting natural phenomena and tales from the Bible. Only two of her quilts survive: the Pictorial Quilt, which lives at the MFA, and the Bible Quilt, which is part of the Smithsonian’s collection. They were exhibited together for the first time as part of “Fabric of a Nation.”
It was also the first time Minter had seen the two quilts side-by-side.
“As Black people, we don’t often get much passed down,” she said, voice cracking slightly. “So it’s a little bit emotional.”
Minter, a genealogist and research librarian at the Library of Congress, started researching her family history in 2007. She managed to trace her mother’s line back to Harriet and Armstead Powers, a married couple who were enslaved on separate properties in Georgia. They later became landowners after the Civil War.
Growing up in the D.C. area, Minter knew nothing of Harriet Powers’ quilts — nor that, for her entire childhood, one had sat in a museum not far from where she lived. Then, one day, Minter googled her great-great-great grandmother’s name. An article about the quilts popped up, along with a photograph of Powers.
“I recognized her face immediately,” Minter said. “My grandfather looks like her. My mother looks like her. My brother looks like her.”
As she continued to read, Minter learned about the quilts for which her great-great-great grandmother became known. It is believed that the Pictorial Quilt was commissioned by the faculty ladies of Atlanta University as a gift for the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall in the late 1890s. Its fifteen panels contain vignettes drawn from Bible stories and local historical events: Jonah tumbling off a ship into the mouth of a whale; Adam, Eve and the snake arranged like gingerbread cookies in the Garden of Eden; stars falling from the sky while people (and one little mouse) cower during the Leonid meteor shower of 1833. The designs are bold, yet whimsical, small stories told in colorful silhouettes.
The 11 panels in the asymmetrical Bible Quilt depict, as its title suggests, stories from the Bible. Much of what is known about the Bible Quilt, which Powers made in the 1880s, comes from an account by Jennie Smith, a white artist and teacher who first encountered the quilt at a cotton fair in 1886. Smith was immediately enamored with Powers’ quilt, writing, “Her style is bold and rather on the impressionists order while there is a naivete of expression that is delicious." Smith wanted to buy the quilt, but, she wrote, “it was not for sale at any price.” Later, Powers’ family fell on hard times, and she reluctantly offered to sell the quilt to Smith for $10. Smith bargained her down to $5. After Smith died, the Bible Quilt was donated to the Smithsonian.
Smith’s account is widely cited in descriptions of the Bible Quilt, though only certain parts tend to be emphasized. “I have read her entire account,” Minter said. “The way that Jennie Smith talked about the quilt, it was obvious it was fascinating to her and that she admired the work that my great-great-great grandmother did. But … she didn’t look at Harriet Powers as being the same as her. It was like: for a Black person to have created something like this, it was remarkable. And it was through that lens that she wanted to own it.”
The quilt, Minter pointed out, was meant to be a family heirloom. And it ought to have been Powers’ story to tell, not Smith’s.
“I feel like the way that this story is told, and the fact that we only have Jennie Smith's word to rely on, kind of takes away some of the agency [from] Harriet Powers, and what she intended in terms of her creation,” Minter said.
More details of Powers’ life emerged in the course of Minter’s family research. She found Powers’ obituary, published in the local paper. “Which,” Minter said, “was kind of unheard of, for a Black person at that time to have an obituary in the regular newspaper, as opposed to the Black newspaper.” An interview with one of Powers’ sons, collected as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, revealed details about Minter’s great-great-great grandfather, Armstead. "He talked about how smart [Armstead] was, how he had a very sharp mind when it came to making money," Minter said. According to her research, while her great-great-great grandfather was enslaved, he would risk punishment by sneaking off the property to visit his wife.
“In the retelling of Harriet Powers, as she is as a quilter in these museums, she's often divorced from who she would have been as a person, as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, as an aunt, as a grandmother,” Minter said. “And so there's part of me that wants to give that back to her. To give her back her place as a person.”
This segment aired on January 24, 2022.