The Extraordinary History of Gee’s Bend Quilts

There is a small rural community in the heart of the South, nestled beside the Alabama river.

Around 700 people currently live in what was formerly known as Gee’s Bend.

Today, it’s known as Boykin. 

These people are largely descended from enslaved people who labored on the nearby Pettway plantation for years. 

The women have been creating patchwork masterpieces since the 1920s, sharing their techniques and designs with later generations. 

The creations of The Gee’s Bend Quilters, as they are commonly referred to, have been displayed in over 20 prestigious museums across the world. 

These emotionally charged tapestries are stunning and well worth the attention they’re getting.

In this post, we’re going to dive into the history of Gee’s Bend Quilts and why they are still culturally significant today. 

Quilting As A Craft 

quilting as a craft - gee's bend quilts

There are many cultures that have a long history of practicing the art of quilting.

Women have long been connected with this special form of communication. 

They use quilting in such a way that they uplift one another through the sharing of personal experiences and expert knowledge. 

Women from all social strata in Europe and the Americas sewed garments together.

However, this activity was commonly associated with the lower and more impoverished classes.

The institutionalization of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant patchwork quilts in North America contrasts with the lack of such recognition for quilts made by Native Americans, Hispanics, and African-Americans. 

The oppressed’s visual lexicon was rife with references to their own culture, particularly the Black experience of colonialism and apartheid.

Some quilt hobbyists in the 1930s, together with groups like the Women’s Institute and the Rural Industries Bureau, rediscovered this art form. 

Quilts were carefully preserved as their creators were provided with high-quality supplies, and their manufacture was aimed at London’s and other cities’ affluent clients.

Famous quilts were created by a group of ladies in an Alabama community of African Americans known as Gee’s Bend. 

Some of the most productive quilters in the area are locals whose ancestry can be traced back to enslaved people, including Mary Lee Bendolph, Arlonzia Pettway, and Annie Mae Young.

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About Gee’s Bend 

about gee's bend quilts

Originally from North Carolina, planter Joseph Gee brought his 17 slaves to this area in 1816 to start a cotton plantation. Mark H. Pettway purchased the property in 1845. 

Many former slaves and their relatives remained as sharecroppers on the estate after its abolition.

At the end of the 1930s, Gee’s Bend underwent a dramatic change when the family of a merchant who had extended credit to the local households after his death began a campaign of ruthless debt collection. 

Families in debt witnessed their food, livestock, equipment, and seed confiscated, but the community was spared by Red Cross rations. 

The Farm Security Administration bought a large portion of the property in this region and used it to launch Gee’s Bend Farms, Inc. 

It was meant to be a cooperative-based program designed to provide for the area’s residents. 

Native Americans and African Americans near the bend were among the few who had gained land ownership through government sales. 

Several photographers from the Farm Security Administration, including Dorothea Lange, documented life in the town of Gee’s Bend. 

Residents of the area had a tough time during the latter part of the Great Depression as farming grew more mechanized, and many of them eventually fled as a result.

Many locals stayed, though.

The town of Gee’s Bend got its own post office from the United States government in 1949. 

The seclusion of Gee’s Bend worsened when the ferry service was discontinued in 1962 (more on this later).

This made it more difficult for locals to sign up to vote, among other things. 

In 2006, the ferries finally started running again.

Quilting At Gee’s Bend 

The quilts made in Gee’s Bend and the adjoining town of Alberta’s Quilting Bee started gaining popularity in the 1960s. 

William Arnett, a collector, historian, and curator of folk art based in Atlanta, Georgia, attracted more attention to this artistic endeavor through his nonprofit, Souls Grown Deep Foundation. 

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, an exhibition curated by Arnett, opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 2002 and then toured a dozen other museums around the United States. 

Sixty quilts by 45 different artists were on display.

Because of this show, quilting is now widely recognized. 

However, there were others who did not approve of how Arnett handled the Gee’s Bend quilts. 

Two Gee’s Bend quilters, Annie Mae Young and Loretta Pettway sued Arnett in 2007, claiming they were swindled out of thousands of dollars. 

The lawyers on both sides kept quiet when the case was settled and dismissed in 2008.

Arnett’s Souls Grown Deep Foundation still holds exhibitions of Gees Bend Quilts, despite the controversy that surrounded the quilts in the past. 

The foundation oversees a variety of fundraising efforts in aid of the Gees Bend Quiltmakers. 

To that end, they plan to compile quilters’ works, promote them, host fundraisers, and give them access to educational and economic opportunities. 

The organization has collaborated with the Artists Rights Society on an extensive, multi-year campaign to get IP protections for Gee’s Bend’s creative community.

How Are Gee’s Bend Quilts Unique?

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to Gee’s Bend in the 1960s was during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. 

He encouraged locals to ride the ferry to the county seat and sign up to vote.

As more and more African Americans registered to vote, white supremacist authorities cut down ferry transportation to the town of Gee’s Bend. 

This mandate left its residents cut off from a wide variety of necessities.

Forty years later, the ferry service was restored. 

Isolation in both society and the physical world has a profound impact on creative expression. 

Generations of Gee’s Bend women stayed in the community and created quilts for the rest of their lives. 

They passed on the art of quilting to their daughters before the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. 

Because of this, quilts made in the Gee’s Bend tradition have maintained their unique aesthetic for so long.

The Style of Gee’s Bend Quilts 

the style of gee's bend quilts

Women in Gee’s Bend created beautiful quilts to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated shacks. 

They were without modern conveniences like running water, telephones, and electricity throughout the postbellum years and into the 20th century. 

They evolved a signature style in the process, one that was characterized by spirited improvisations and a sparse, geometric aesthetic. 

Many of the quilts have a minimalist look, which is a departure from traditional quilting. 

It’s possible that this was impacted by the fact that they were geographically isolated and had to make do with whatever resources they could find, which included reusing old fabrics.

The quilters of Gee’s Bend develop their technical skills over the course of a lifetime by working on their own projects and studying those of their friends. 

Quilters don’t use written patterns but instead rely on their own intuition as they create elaborate variations on basic patterns.

This improvisation is a prime example of twentieth-century abstract art.

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Some of Today’s Women Behind The Quilts 

some of today's women behind the quilts

Mary Margaret Pettway 

Mary Margaret Pettway is a third-generation Gee’s Bend Quilter, which makes her children the fourth. 

She is the daughter of Lucy T. Pettway.

She was profoundly influenced by her exposure to the creativity and determination of the women in her mother’s quilting circle as a child.

She recalls her mother and her friends sitting around, quilting, and talking. 

Mary Margaret prefers to quilt by herself now because she is so precise about her work.

The quality of her work shows and feels like the result of her meticulousness.

Sharon Williams 

Sharon Williams can pinpoint the exact second that she began quilting.

She would go to her mother, Rosalee Pettway, and sit under the quilt to observe her. 

Sharon finally attempted to sew that quilt by herself when Rosalee turned her back.

Sharon has honed her quilting technique and is fond of bright colors and free-styling.

Caster Pettway 

Caster Pettway likes to take long strolls to help him think about new ideas.

She actively seeks out and appreciates the good things in life. 

Caster Bendolph, the second youngest of her mother, Indiana Bendolph’s ten children, took up crafting and housework right away. 

She wanted to do everything her mother did. So, she started quilting. 

She was the smallest person in the field of cotton pickers, but at age six, she was already making cornbread and working the field. 

Caster takes pleasure in her pastime, and these days she likes to use a Grandmother’s Dream pattern.

Aside from the creative process, her favorite part of quilting is gifting them to others.

Doris Pettway Mosely

Doris Mosely’s mother, Leola Pettway, taught her how to sew while she was growing up in Boykin, Alabama. 

Though she originally made quilts as gifts, she now finds great pleasure in sitting down to stitch for herself. 

Fabrics, colors, and designs all appeal to her aesthetic sense.

She comes up with her own designs and often improvises by piecing together scraps of fabric to see what she comes up with.

Emma Mooney Pettway 

Inventiveness runs in Emma Mooney Pettway’s blood.

Her grandmother, Lottie Mooney, whose quilt was one of ten featured on a US postage stamp in 2006, is a Gee’s Bend Quilter, as is her mother, Tanzy Mooney. 

At a young age, she picked up the skill of sewing from these women.

The practice of sitting under the quilt and threading the needle served as a source of creativity for the young girl. 

The fact that she has a passion for patchwork is, therefore, not unexpected. “When I’m cutting out patterns for quilts, the idea just comes to me,” she explains. 

Kristin Pettway 

Delia Bennett, Kristin Pettway’s great-grandmother, is the matriarch of one of the largest families of quilters in Gee’s Bend. 

So, it’s safe to say that quilting has had a profound effect on Kristin’s life.

She’s grown up in a household where quilts play a central role. 

Kristin is a genuine artist at heart, always looking for new ways to express herself.

When she’s not quilting, the piano is her go-to instrument.

Loretta Pettway Bennett

Loretta Pettway Bennett learned how to quilt when she was six years old.

Qunnie Pettway, her mother, was a Quilting Bee member.

They were assigned to thread needles for the quilters when they were very young.

Having lived in a number of different countries, including Germany, Loretta’s family has finally settled in North Alabama and makes frequent trips to Gee’s Bend.

The Alabama State Archive Council on the Arts awarded her a fellowship in 2001. 

Doris Pettway Hacketts

Doris Pettway Hacketts, the seventh of 13 kids, is a master at striking a balance between solitude and belonging. 

She spent her childhood helping her parents out in the cotton fields and doing chores around the house.

She eventually fled the cotton fields to attend university.

After finishing college, she returned home and rediscovered her interest in quilting.

She finds that the act of making something useful serves as a form of therapeutic activity.

Lue Ida McCloud 

Lue Ida left Gee’s Bend for Brooklyn, New York, when she was 17 years old and spent the next decade working at JP Morgan before coming back to help raise her sisters’ children.

When she returned, she started making quilts. 

She likes to make quilts because they represent the generations of her family and how they have shared and helped one another. 

Delia Pettway Thibodeaux 

Delia Pettway Thibodeaux is part of the third generation of her family to make quilts. 

Delia still places a high value on passing down the family legacy, so she saves every piece of fabric that passes her way.

She loves it when her granddaughter joins her in putting together quilts of their own.

This ensures that their family history is intact.

Joeann Pettway West 

Joeann Pettway West remembers her childhood home as a place where ideas and inspiration abound.

The two sides of the family share a love of food and cooking.

Joeann maintains the family’s culinary and quilting customs these days.

She spent three years in West Germany before returning home to join her mother at the Quilting Bee in Gee’s Bend.

Stella Mae Pettway 

Stella Mae Pettway, who was born and raised at Gee’s Bend and still resides there, credits her mother, Georgianna, as her primary source of inspiration. 

Stella Mae now finds inspiration in her surroundings.

Looking at different textiles and imagining how the colors will merge is a source of beauty for her.

Katie Mae Pettway 

Katie Mae Pettway, the 10th of 15 children, has always found satisfaction in creating.

As a little girl, she was always experimenting and creating anything new. 

She picked up the skill of quilting from seeing her mother.

She had a passion for making cloth dolls and other unique creations. 

She particularly enjoys working with corduroy when she quilts. Katie Mae enjoys being outdoors the most during her free time.

As a kind of stress reliever, she enjoys gardening, keeping chickens, and reading.

Cassandra Ann Pettway 

Cassandra Ann Pettway and her daughter maintain the Etsy shop they inherited from their mother, Sharon Williams (the proprietor of Sha’s Shop Gee’s Bend!). Cassandra is heavily influenced by those closest to her.

She began quilting because her mother encouraged her to, and now her daughter does the same.

Quilts as Fine Art and Decor 

For a long time, African American women were mostly ignored in mainstream art market surveys and anthologies of American art history. 

The Gee’s Bend quilters were able to achieve recognition and financial reward for their work. 

This happened in the decades before historians and collectors recognized the cultural legacy of Black women and crafters within the canon of American art history.

The Freedom Quilting Bee was founded in 1966 by a group of African-American quilters in the Alabama Black Belt, including numerous residents of Gee’s Bend. 

They organized in an effort to promote economic development and civil rights in the region. 

The Gee’s Bend quilts gained national exposure through the Freedom Quilting Bee and even sparked a trend of utilizing quilts as home decor.

How Gee’s Bend Quilts Influenced The Quilting World 

how gee's bend quilts influenced the quilting world

It would be weird to find a modern quilter who is not influenced by the Gee’s Bend quilts in some way, given the profound cultural impact they have had.

They are prized as modern and contemporary art.

Over twenty major art museums around the world now have at least one Gee’s Bend quilt in their collection, thanks to the widespread acclaim the quilts have received. 

In honor of Black History Month in 2021, the quilters of Gee’s Bend started selling their crafts on Etsy.  

Even while a Gee’s Bend quilt can fetch upwards of $20,000 these days, the quilters sell a wide range of affordable products in their online shops. 

Related Reading: Movies Filmed In Alabama – Find Out Here.

Final Thoughts 

The women of Gee’s Bend put their own spin on the one visual tradition that is popular across all demographics of the US. 

They weave it into the very fabric of their lives and tie their imagination to their loved ones and the community at large.

The Gee’s Bend quiltmakers have been upholding the quilting tradition for as long as anyone can remember.

And they are devout citizens who take pride in their country and their faith. 

The senior ladies pass on their knowledge of fashion and beauty to the younger ones, and the resulting works are both classic and cutting-edge. 

The artists of Gee’s Bend have an exceptional understanding of color.

The members of the group value one another’s differences while working to develop their own identities. 

Each quilt has the mark of its maker and serves as a symbol of its community.

They truly are one of the best modern art America has produced. 

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