Black History Month: Sarah Ann Wilson and Harriet Powers

Today we’re going to take a look at some examples of historic quilts made by quilters.

First up is this lovely album quilt by Sarah Ann Wilson:

SA Wilson

(image by The Art Institute Chicago)

This elegant quilt, featuring delicate floral and animal motifs, is notable for its depictions of black people in the central row. The quilt was made in about 1854, which is just a few years before the outbreak of the American Civil War, which was caused by a conflict over the (continued) enslavement of black people in the US. President Abraham Lincoln had banned slavery in the Constitution, but the Southern Confederate states wished to continue the practice of slave-owning.

Unfortunately, very little is known about the quilt’s maker, Sarah Ann Wilson, but she is believed to have been a free black woman living in New York, and the figures delicately appliquéd onto her quilt may represent her family members. It is a striking depiction of black family life at a time before the ban on the enslavement of black people in the US. The quilt has been on display throughout the US.

Harriet Powers was born into slavery in 1839. She married aged 18; her husband later left her. She exhibited one of her two surviving quilts, the Bible Quilt, at a fair in 1886. Although it was not for sale ‘at any price’, she was later forced by financial difficulties to sell, and at half the price she had wanted. Jennie Smith, the buyer, recorded Harriet’s explanation of the biblical scenes depicted on the quilt, as well as her own reasons for wishing to buy it: ‘Her style is bold and rather on the impressionists’ order, while there is a naiveté of expression that is delicious.’

Bible quilt

(Image by the Smithsonian). You can see all the panels of the quilt here.

The quilt clearly had personal significance to Harriet as she visited it several times after selling it at her husband’s urging. The biblical scenes she chose may reference the struggle to escape from slavery that she had personally experienced.

Pictorial quilt

(Image by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Harriet’s other surviving quilt may have been a commission. It, too, features bible stories  (like the crucifixion, bottom right) as well as weather events and astronomical phenomena (the falling stars in the middle panel). Her style of appliqué and use of panels has been compared to West African textile styles. You can find a blog post on this quilt here.

The fusion of American and West African style as shown in Harriet Powers’ work was only recognised long after her death as significant artistic expression. Her quilts are now held in leading US museums.




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