Gee's Bend Quiltmakers
HOPE & TRADITION
Travel down a weather-beaten old county road about 30 miles southwest of Selma, Alabama and you’ll find yourself in the small hamlet known as Gee’s Bend. It sits in Wilcox County, isolated on a deep stretch of land along the Alabama River. There the water flows the deep rich color of melted chocolate through the heart of a stretch of land that extends from Texas to Virginia. This region is called the Black Belt for its fertile topsoil and its history of using Black slaves to pick its cotton.
Amidst this rural backdrop, women in Gee’s Bend have been making quilts since the mid-nineteenth century, with the oldest surviving example being from the 1920s. Their works are considered among the most culturally significant contributions to American art and have been featured in museums across the country. Their unique quilting style has been passed down through the generations and is a tradition as rich in history as it is in aesthetic.
Gee’s Bend was named after Joseph Gee, a white slave owner, who staked a cotton plantation claim there in 1816 with 18 slaves on land previously belonging to Creek Indians. In the years that followed, the land was sold to other slave owners and then broken up into small farms. Many of these were bought by the residents of Gee’s Bend as part of a government program in the 1940s.
But through all that time it has remained a region characterized as home to “the richest soil and the poorest people” in the United States. The community of Gee’s Bend has been isolated for most of its existence by geography, poverty, and outside indifference. The women of Gee’s Bend, most of them descendants of slaves, quilted out of necessity to keep their families warm, living in shacks that often lacked heat, running water, and electricity. Using scraps of everyday fabrics like cotton sheets, corduroy, and denim, they made do with what they had. They learned their craft from their mothers or grandmothers, and passed it on to their daughters, infusing each new quilt with their own perspective and beauty. To make money, they grew and picked cotton, peanuts, okra, corn, peas, and potatoes.
In 1965 as Martin Luther King, Jr. prepared for his historic march from Selma to Montgomery, he stopped in Gee’s Bend and shouted over a heavy rain "I came over here to Gee's Bend to tell you, you are somebody." Many of the residents, inspired, joined him in the effort to register to vote, an act of defiance that cost many of them their homes and jobs. Then in 1966 civil rights worker Francis X. Walker convinced the women of Gee’s Bend to join the Freedom Quilting Bee, a cooperative to help generate income for poor communities in Alabama. That brought a bit of notoriety to Gee's Bend and for a brief moment they made quilts for famous retailers like Bloomingdale's, Saks, and Bonwit Teller.
But the constraints of making quilts to certain specifications, in assembly line style, robbed the artists of the freedom of expression that was the signature of their work. And that potential economic growth faded away.
That would have been that if not for art collector Bill Arnett, who in 1998 saw a photograph of a quilt by Annie Mae Young while researching the history of African American art. That quilt stitched together out of old discarded work clothes stopped him in his tracks. Its originality and beauty stunned him and convinced him that he needed to find the artist. That journey took him to Gee’s Bend where he uncovered one of the most remarkable collections of American art.
What Arnett found, stored under mattresses and in closets and cupboards for years, was a trove of art whose traditions, passed on through generations of women, captured the history of African Americans and would ultimately be displayed in some of the world’s most famous museums. The women of Gee’s Bend became famous for what Michael Kimmelman, of The New York Times, said were “eye-poppingly gorgeous" quilts that are “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee...arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South." Curator Jane Livingston followed saying that the quilts "rank with the finest abstract art of any tradition." The women of Gee’s Bend finally got the recognition they deserve as some of the finest American artists, helping to revitalize their tradition.
Today the women of Gee’s Bend continue to quilt and are beginning to sell their art through their partnership with nonprofit Nest. Their traditions and stories have been memorialized by the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, and their artwork continues to travel around the world.
The artists and their work represent an important piece of the story of America and American textiles in particular. Their beautiful geometric expression captures all the complexity, inspiration, and hope that marks the checkered past of American textiles and the ongoing hope of the civil rights struggle. Their strength and courage remind us of all the work that has come before us and all the work still left to do.
To learn more and support, you can also visit soulsgrowndeep.org, buildanest.org and donorbox.org/support-gee-s-bend-quilters