Above: Quilt at the Freedom Quilting Bee collective in Gees Bend Alabama
“Along the Alabama River just south of Selma, there’s a horseshoe-shaped turn resembling an inland island, (on the Alabama river) where a cotton plantation once stood. In 1816, 18 slaves were brought to this bend by a man named Gee from North Carolina. A generation later, his cousin, Pettway, took over the plantation and brought more slaves — one of them, Dinah Miller, brought to the United States on a slave ship in 1859, has descendants living there today. When the last remaining African American slaves were emancipated on June 19th, 1865, many from the Pettway plantation, who now also went by the name of Pettway, continued to work there as sharecroppers.”
Quilts were made out of necessity to keep family warm, who were living in drafty homes. A characteristic artisanal aesthetic was developed and passed down over the generations. Martin Luther King Jr visited Gees Bend and engaged the community to take the ferry to Camden Alabama to register to vote. He also encouraged the quilters to start a collective as a form of income. They called it the Freedom Quilting Bee. In 1962 the local authorities cut off the ferry service to the nearest registration office. The ferry service remained shut down for over 4 decades, being re-instated in 2006. The lack of this simple yet vital service denied the Gees Bend residents critical healthcare and emergency services, as well as access to shopping, legal and financial transactions and an available transportation connection to the rest of Alabama.
“In 2002, Atlanta-based collector and historian Bill Arnett, as part of a project to survey the visual tradition of the African American South, took an interest in the quilts created by the women of Gee’s Bend, and organized an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The free-form and individual-yet-congruent, contemporary, emblematic, energetic, minimalist and exquisitely graphic quilts emerged in this new context as one of American art’s most important contributions.”
“The Exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend travelled to 13 museums including the Whitney, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, MFA Boston, the Milwaukee Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the de Young Museum, San Francisco. In 2014, Bill Arnett, through his nonprofit Souls Grown Deep, donated 57 works from his collection of contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
Some Gees Benders migrated north to find work, members of Pettway family reside in Bridgeport and continue to quilt. The work of Gees Bend quilters and their Bridgeport family members were on view together at City Lights Gallery in 2014 in the exhibit Common Threads. Plans are underway to decorate the restored library on Central Ave with a quilt motif, in recognition of the quilters and their family who live nearby.
The Us Postal service produced commemorative stamps and even a play written about the Gees Bend quilters. It was performed at Hartford Stage.
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