Slavery And Its Aftermath

Although we know from documentary evidence including oral histories (including the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narratives) that many enslaved individuals made quilts, few extant quilts remain associated with their enslaved makers’ names.

Harriet Powers and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley may be two of the most well-documented quiltmakers born into slavery. Two of Harriet Powers’ quiltsmade post-Reconstruction during the 1880sare in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley's Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt resides at the Kent State University Museum.  These two women represent only a small sampling of enslaved individuals who made quilts.

Some historians have argued that slavery may have been on its way out as a valid economic system until the invention of the cotton gin revitalized the South's cotton industry.  Whether or not a slave made quilts, slaves were involved in every aspect of textile production from field to fiber to cloth to clothing and quilts. The WPA Slave Narratives, quilt documentation projects, and scholars like Cuesta Benberry and Gladys-Marie Fry have documented slave-made quilts.  Slaves made quilts for the plantation family, sometimes under the supervision of the plantation mistress, but WPA interviews attest to the prevalence of quiltmaking in the slave quarters for their own use as well.

Some slave seamstresses became highly regarded for their skill. The North Carolina Quilt Project published the story of Kadella, an early 19th-century slave who was reputedly a princess from Barbados, and her extraordinary needlework skills that earned her an honored place on her owner's plantation. Her story is rather unique, but there are many accounts, including Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley’s, of slaves who used their skills as artisans to gain their freedom or make their enslaved lives a little less burdensome.