The Famous Bible Quilt of Harriet Powers
Genealogy is a passion and not a single day in the year passes in which I am not engage in some kind of genealogical activity. Some days I bury myself in census records, and other days, I study the Dawes Roll, Kern Clifton Roll and Dunn Roll from Indian Territory. On another day, Civil War research might take up my time, and a different day might take me to a cemetery as my eyes scan the burial ground for USCT's or benevolent society members from the Mosaic Templars.
Of late, thanks to the inspiration from a fellow genealogist, in Tennessee I have been nudged to also re-visit another old passion--that of quilting.
In fact, since October, I have dared to pull out an old unfinished quilt from the closet, and to my own surprise, I actually finished that quilt and since last weekend, I have been sleeping under that quilt for several days.
Quilt recently finished now on my bed.
Last week, while looking at the calendar, I realized that a significant day had just passed. But since the weather had been quite cloudy, I had not undertaken my annual late night toast to my ancestor, Amanda Young, who spoke about her being a witness to an astronomical event--the Leonid meteor shower---of 1833. My gr. grandmother Amanda Young often spoke about this event until she died, and I wrote a blog piece about it three years ago. She was a witness and because of this, and my interest in quilts one day I was able to piece together the story, and her age, and the event.
It was another quilter who provided the details that I needed to "piece" some of the details about my Amanda's life. The quilter was Harriet Powers, a woman whose quilts now hang in the Smithsonian Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She was born a slave in Albany Georgia, and she was most known for her story quilts. Her most famous one is a bible quilt (shown above).
Harriet Powers, Master Quilter
In that quilt, she had stories from the Bible, and also stories from historical events. One of the panels in the famous Bible quilt depicts the historic Leonid Meteor Shower---the Night the Stars Fell.
Panel from Harriet Powers Quilt Depicting the Night the Stars Fell
In 1991, I decided I wanted to learn how to quilt and was going to teach myself. While reading a quilting magazine an article discussed the work of African American quilters including Harriet Powers, and her inclusion of a panel depicting the Night the stars fell. She had been a witness to this event, like my Amanda. Amanda's would simply say that she was a little girl, when the stars fell, but she spoke of the seeing the stars fall in detail, and also of the fear the event instilled in the community. And here in a quilting magazine--was mention of a former slaves who included mention of the same event in her hand work! She saw the same stars fall!
The article was brief, but it mentioned a professor who had written a book about African American quilters, and in the book Dr. Gladys Marie-Fry made a reference to Harriet Powers, and the same event, the night the stars fell. I had to find the book, called Stitched from the Soul, which I did! And there it was--the footnote that I needed--the gave me a date! Amanda said she was a young girl--about 8 or so, and there it was--the years the stars fell---1833!
I never knew Amanda's age, but thanks to Harriet Powers, and also the.nomers who recorded this major event, I learned that the stars fell 1833, about November 10th,
So, 180 years ago, in November, a small girl, in Maury County, Tennessee near Columbia, saw the stars fall. And 180 years ago, a young woman in Georgia saw the stars fall. The tiny girl, born into slavery would tell that story throughout her life. The young woman in Georgia made a quilt and included that event as she pieced and stitched that quilt.
Reading about this event in the 1990s would help me make a better estimate of Amanda's age, and time of birth. Amanda always said she was a small child when the stars fell, but she also had a vivid memory of the event and the effects of the falling stars on the slave holders and overseers and I blogged about this 3 years ago.
"Somebody in the quarters started yellin' in the middle of the night to come out and to look up at the sky.
"We went outside and there they was a fallin' everywhere! Big stars coming down real close to the ground and just before they hit the ground they would burn up! We was all scared. Some of the folks was screamin', and some was prayin'. We all made so much noise, the white folks came out to see what was happenin'. They looked up and then they got scared, too.
"But then the white folks started callin' all the slaves together, and for no reason, they started tellin' some of the slaves who their mothers and fathers was, and who they'd been sold to and where they took em.
The old folks was so glad to hear where their people went. They made sure we all knew what happened.........you see, they thought it was Judgement Day."
I had wondered for years exactly how old Amanda may have been, even though I was able to make a partial estimate from the various census years, in which her name was found, I was never sure if I was close.
But the knowing about the famous meteor shower of 1833, helped me, because this was a landmark event. Ironically, it was a quilting magazine that lead me to Gladys Marie-Frye whose book Stitched from the Soul gave me the date.
So from a quilter, I learned when the event, the Leonid Meteor shower took place. And I somehow felt closer to my Amanda, the young girl, who saw the stars fall, who heard the overseers and slave holders tell the slaves where they had sent their loved ones, and who hear the whaling and crying, for they all thought that it was judgement day.
The 180th anniversary of that day passed only a few days ago. As a descendant of that child who saw the stars fall, and also as a quilter, I am continually reminded of my legacy and how so many things in the present are a direct result of events from the past.
Rest in peace Amanda, and thank you for telling the story of the night the stars fell.
Rest in peace Mrs. Powers, and thank you for telling my ancestor's story through your quilt.
I am amazed that a humble quilter told my story.