Today, we’ll listen to the extraordinary history and personal stories of the Black women quilters of Boykin a.k.a. “Gee’s Bend”, Alabama, population 208.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I know next to nothing about quilting. I can just barely sew a button. And I may or may not have used duct tape extensively to “fix” unraveling hems on many items of clothing. Nevertheless, these stories gripped and captivated me. Yes, this is about quilting. But it’s so much more than that. This is about art and artists. About unfathomably painful histories and extraordinary resilience. About women and community. But specifically about Black women, and Black community.
For a very brief (3:27) introduction, watch this segment from Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. Given the time limitation inherent in this type of media platform, Roberts does a good job here of showcasing the Gee’s Bend quilters’ history and culture, and how they come alive in these quilting traditions.
But to say this only scratches the surface is quite the understatement. These stories run deep.
That the name “Pettway” is still interwoven into so many of these women’s identities, generations after emancipation, serves as an enduring connection to their enslaved ancestors who worked the cotton fields on the Pettway plantation, and were thus given the slaveowner’s name. Gee’s Bend quilting traces directly back through the women in these lineages, from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother to daughter to granddaughter and so on.
Some Gee’s Bend quilters can trace their heritage to the Freedom Quilting Bee. In 1966 the local economy was decimated when residents were fired from jobs and evicted from their homes after registering to vote. Authorities also completely stranded the community by discontinuing ferry service and cutting off basic services to Gee’s Bend. Several of the current quiltmakers can vividly recall their own mothers quilting out of sheer necessity – not to sell their work, but to keep their families warm in unheated shacks that lacked running water, telephones and electricity.
The Freedom Quilting Bee was established in 1966 with the help of volunteers and a civil rights activist/Episcopalian priest who saw economic potential in these “functional works of art.” An outgrowth of the civil rights movement, the Bee brought some measure of economic revival, in a sustainable and self-sufficient form. And slowly but surely, the larger world began to take notice:
Calvin Trillin devoted a 1969 The New Yorker piece to the opening of the community’s new sewing center, paid for with quilting bee revenues. In 1983, an exhibit in Birmingham sponsored by the Alabama Humanities Foundation included several of [Arthur] Rothstein’s [1930s] photographs of Gee’s Bend, and an oral history project at the Birmingham Public Library sent new researchers and a photographer to document a new generation of residents.
And then in 2002, an exhibition of their art work opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, organized by the Tinwood Alliance and everything changed. The show went to the Whitney Museum in New York City and…subsequently traveled to numerous other museums and the women have found gallery representation for their art. In June 2006, a second exhibition of quilts opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, also organized by the Tinwood Alliance, called “Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt.” It traveled to seven additional museums, including the Smithsonian, the final stop of the nationwide tour was the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the end of 2008…In August 2006, the United States Postal Service released a sheet of ten commemorative stamps bearing images of Gee’s Bend quilts sewn between c.1940 and 2001.
Art critics who have viewed Gee’s Bend quilt collections could not have been more effusive in their praise. For example:
Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston wrote, “The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There’s a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making.” The Whitney venue, in particular, brought a great deal of art-world attention to the work, starting with Michael Kimmelman’s 2002 review in The New York Times which called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced” and went on to describe them as a version of Matisse and Klee arising in the rural South.
But even global fame did not guarantee sustainable economic revival for Gee’s Bend, where the average yearly income is about $12,000 and “some residents live without the basic amenities of mobile and internet access, limiting the quilters’ ability to expand the sale of their goods.”
Then, along comes F&%#ing COVID. As Robin Roberts says in the GMA clip above:
For decades tourists and quilt enthusiasts have been flocking to this remote peninsula to purchase a piece of history. But with the pandemic settling in Alabama all travel and tourism came to a halt, closing local shops and stopping sales.
While the quilters had long been promoted and supported by the Souls Run Deep foundation, now the non-profit NEST jumped on board to get them back in business – this time with direct access to global markets and e-commerce under their own control, via Gee’s Bend Quilters Etsy shops.
The Gee’s Bend quilters are now – finally – enjoying commercial success in addition to their well-deserved artistic acclaim.
You have no doubt noticed by now that I have not posted any images of quilts. This is for two reasons. One, I am not sure of the copyright status of the quilt patterns or images, and as as an artist myself, would prefer not to infringe any intellectual property rights belonging to these women, or dilute their value in any way. And two, I would much rather post pictures of the women, along with links to their Etsy stores. Because while the quilts are certainly things of beauty to behold, it is the character and sheer brilliance of these Black women that deserve our recognition and respect, and seeing their smiling faces brings me real joy.
At the Door Quilts
K and K Quilted Treasure
Doris Pettway Hacketts
Kiara’s Quilt Boutique
Doris Pettway Mosely
Mary Margaret Pettway
Quilts by Caster
Quilts by Lue
Lue Ida McCloud
Sew Lolo Shop
Loretta Pettway Bennett
Sha’s Shop Gee’s Bend
Emma’s Lovely Treasures
Emma Mooney Pettway
For much more information on the Gee’s Bend quilters and the history of the region and its people, here are some illustrative and informative sites, most of which I’ve quoted in this post:
Etsy Journal: Quilts Full of Culture From the Women of Gee’s Bend.
Instagram: Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers. Here you can view at a glance a collection of quilts from various Gee’s Bend quilters.
Souls Grown Deep: Gee’s Bend Quiltermakers. This page displays some stunning works of current and historic Gee’s Bend quilters, and clicking on those images brings up short biographies and some incredible historical photos of the artists.
Wikipedia: Boykin, Alabama (and links there).
Wikipedia: Quilts of Gee’s Bend (and links there).
Now go check out some quilts!
Day 1 of Black History Month 2022 (Lori Teresa Yearwood) is here.
Day 2 of Black History Month 2022 (Mallence Bart-Williams) is here.
Day 3 of Black History Month 2022 (Emmett Till) is here.
Day 4 of Black History Month 2022 (A Tale of Two Citizens) is here.
Day 5 of Black History Month 2022 (Trayvon Martin) is here.
Day 6 of Black History Month 2022 (Franchesca Ramsey) is here.
Day 7 of Black History Month 2022 (National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and the Black Aids Institute) is here.
Day 8 of Black History Month 2022 (extreme racial disparities in marijuana arrests.) is here.
Day 9 of Black History Month 2022 (Summer of Soul/1969 Harlem Cultural Festival) is here.
Day 10 of Black History Month 2022 (current and historic racist domestic terrorism, Steve Phillips/Democracy in Color) is here.