By Hardy Jackson
Now I haven’t been to New York City in a long time. And I don’t have any particular urge to go right now. But if I had to go, I think I could survive the trip if while I was there, I could work in a visit to the Whitney Museum if they still had the exhibit “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.”
Gee’s Bend is one of those places you have to be going to, to get there. Located in the heart of the Black Belt, hemmed in on three sides by the Alabama River and accessible only by a road from the west and a ferry from the east, it is about as isolated as you can be and still be somewhere.
Joseph Gee from North Carolina gave the Bend its name, but it was Mark H. Pettway, who took over in 1846, who named most of the people who lived there. With the labor of over 100 slaves Pettway turned the Bend into “a dukedom in the vast Southern cotton empire,” and after emancipation the former slaves who stayed as sharecroppers became Pettways. So thoroughly was the name associated with residents of the bend that blacks who later moved there took it up, just to fit in.
Soon the white Pettways left and only the black Pettways remained. They worked the land when Tuscaloosa’s Van De Graaff family took over, but worked it more according to their schedule than that of the owners. Fiercely independent they frequently violated the traditional arrangement where the sharecropper turns his crop over to the landlord, and instead sold their crop and got credit from merchants downstream in Mobile or across the river at Camden. By 1930 there were around 100 black tenant families living in the Bend. Except for brief visits to town to sell cotton or settle debts, they stayed in there. It was, according to an observer on the scene, “another civilization … an Alabama Africa.”
Then tragedy struck. A merchant in Camden who held liens on their personal possessions, passed away and his widow foreclosed. In the fall of 1932 they came, the “white men with pistols on their hips, riding horses, and leading a train of wagons,” which they filled with everything the Bend folk owned. Then they rounded up the cattle, mules, and anything that could flutter or fly and took it away. Residents of the Bend “faced the winter with nothing to eat save a handful of peas, a handful of corn and a handful of peanuts the raiders graciously left.”
But they survived, thanks to hard work, sharing what they had, and with the help of the Red Cross slowly they began to recover. Then, in February of 1937, the federal government arrived. The Farm Security Administration, one of the New Deal’s most active agencies, bought out the white owners and set up an agricultural experiment to be known as “Gee’s Bend Farms.” Under the plan Gee’s Bend residents could buy the land on which modern houses would be built. A cooperative store and cotton gin were opened.
A school, medical clinic, and community center were built and staffed. Everything they could want, it seemed, was provided.
Which was the problem. Gee’s Bend folk didn’t any more like being told what to do by the government than by the planters. They chaffed at restrictions set by the co-op and often did things their own way. Meanwhile postwar Republican Congresses balked at putting more money into the project and by the early 1950s, the experiment had all but been abandoned. What remained was the community, a tight-knit group of real and faux-Pettways who hung on to the land when others left and who, despite their poverty, managed to get by and get along.
So, what does this have to do with quilts?
Well, in the 1960s Gee’s Bend was rediscovered. When the Civil Rights struggle came to the Black Belt the Bend, with its African-American population, was a haven for Movement members, white and black. And some who came in winter snuggled under quilts Gees Bend women had been making for decades to keep off the river bottom chill.
Struck by their beauty and originality, some of the visitors bought a few and took them back to north where they were recognized as important works of folk art.
So, for a little while at least, the Bend became famous. Quilts you once could buy for a few dollars were sought by collectors willing to pay hundreds, even thousands.
Some of the finest museums in the nation added them to their collection, meanwhile just outside the Bend local women set up the Freedom Quilting Bee to make and market their product. For a while it prospered, and somewhere in my files I have a picture of quilts, hanging on a line, airing out on a spring day. I could have bought one then for $250. I wish I had.
For years I passed by the Bee when I drove to South Alabama, but there hasn’t been any activity recently. Maybe they are closed up for the winter. I hope that is it. For it would be a shame if the tradition has died and all we have left is what hangs in museums.
But at least we have that, and though I would not travel to New York to just to see the exhibit – or do much else for that matter — I feel good just knowing it is there.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.