Some Gee’s Bend History

"Zig Zag" Quilt by Gertrude Miller based on the African design "Sea Grass" passed down from Dinah.
“Zig Zag” Quilt by Gertrude Miller based on the African textile design “Sea Grass” passed down from Arlonzia Pettway’s Great-Grandmother Dinah.

In reading about Gee’s Bend Alabama, where all those women make all those beautiful quilts, I came to see the rich history of the place. Isolated as it has always been, (its isolation a big part of what  kept the quilting tradition alive) it also seems to draw the outside world into it, making history, at different points in time.

The quilting history in Gee’s Bend goes back to around 1816 or so when Joseph Gee bought the land and started a Plantation.   In 1845 his heirs sold the Plantation and 101 slaves to Mark Pettway.      After the Civil War ended in 1865 many of the freed slaves stayed on the Plantation as tenant farmers keeping the name Pettway.   Quilter, Arlonzia Pettway tells how her great-grandmother Dinah was brought to Gee’s Bend as a slave from Africa.  And about how a piece of cloth that Dinah brought with her influenced at least one of the Gee’s Bend quilt patterns  known as ZigZag.

With the Depression the Federal Government came to Gee’s Bend.   They bought  7, 425 acres from the current owner and  gave the tenant farmers low interest loans to buy land and houses.  The government built schools and a mill and a clinic and started the Gee’s Bend Cooperative.  Photographers were sent to document life there.   Two quilters, Minder Coleman and Lucy Mooney, wove cloth that was used to make curtains for the White House and the suit that President Roosevelt was buried in.

In 1965 Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Gee’s Bend inspiring many of the residents to join the march form Selma to Montgomery.  Quilter Lucy Mingo said “No white man gonna tell me not to march. Only make me march harder”.  Not long after this, the ferry service, which would take the residents of Gee’s Bend to  the town of Camden where they could register to vote, was closed down to prevent them from voting.  And in 1968 Gee’s Bend mules pulled the wagon with Martin Luther King Jr.’s casket in it at his funeral in Atlanta.

In 1966 Francis X Walter an Episcopal Minister  bought  a bunch of Gee’s Bend Quilts and sold them at auction in New York City.  They became popular and he worked with  quilter Minder Coleman to create the Freedom Quilting Bee.  The quilts were sold in department stores in New York city.   It provided lots of jobs for the women of Gee’s Bend,  but many of them didn’t like the work because they had to keep making the same quilts over and over and they had a certain standard that had to be met.  Quilter Nettie Young said “In the quilting bee time I started using patterns, but I shouldn’t have done it.  It broke the ideas I had in my head.  I should have stayed with my own ideas”

And in the early 1970’s  they had a contract with  Sears to make Corduroy pillowcases.  A whole collection of Corduroy Quilts came from using the scarps from those pillow cases.

Then in the late 1990’s Art Collector  William Arnett rediscovered the quilts of Gee’s Bend and put together an exhibit that traveled around the United States and brought  fame to the quilters recognition to Gee’s Bend again.

Though out this history, the women of Gee’s Bend, out of necessity,  first to keep their families warm then to make money, continue to make quilts and pass down their traditions.  I don’t know how many quilters there still are in Gee’s Bend.  And I’ve read that the outside world is beginning to encroach on the town in a way it never has before.  But now, at least, their quilts are being preserved in museums and photographs.  They are being seen by thousands of people, appreciated as the art and  influencing artists like me.

6 thoughts on “Some Gee’s Bend History

  1. Thank you for this wonderful history of the Gee’s Bend quilters, Maria! I look forward to seeing what inspires you after your visit.

  2. Maria,
    I can picture you there, taking the ferry, surrounded by history and these wise women, laughing and sharing techniques and life stories! I hope your trip is graced with sunshine that embraces your soul.

    Peace,
    Sandra

  3. This is so interesting. Thanks Maria! Have a great time. I feel your growth. Your spirit. Your determination! You inspire me as always. :)

  4. Dear Maria, THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO GIVE US THIS HISTORY!! I did not know the rich history of struggle and victory of the women in Gee’s Bend. Annie

  5. Thanks for the tip about the show. I watched it and it had me wanting to start 5 projects at once. I’ll be getting the rest of the series from Netflix

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