Known officially since 1949 as the town of Boykin, the community of Gee's Bend is situated in Wilcox County in the west Alabama Black Belt. Today, approximately 750 people, mostly descendants of enslaved African Americans, live in the community on the banks of the Alabama River. Although beset by the same poverty and economic underdevelopment that characterize other sections of western Alabama, Gee's Bend has demonstrated a persistent cultural wealth in the vibrant folk art of its quilt makers, whose work has gained national attention and critical acclaim.
Early inhabitants of Alabama tended to create communities along the many waterways of the state, so Gee's Bend is not unique as a river community. Joseph Gee, a large landowner from Halifax County in North Carolina, settled in 1816 in a bend of the Alabama River across from the future town of Camden and southwest of the site where Selma would be founded three years later. He brought 18 enslaved blacks with him and established a cotton plantation. When he died, he left 47 slaves and his estate to two of his nephews, Sterling and Charles Gee. In 1845 the Gee brothers sold the plantation to a relative, Mark H. Pettway. The Pettway family name remains prominent in Wilcox County. After emancipation, freed blacks who stayed on at the plantation worked as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. The Pettway family held the land until 1895, when they sold it to Adrian Sebastian Van de Graaff, an attorney from Tuscaloosa who operated the plantation as an absentee landowner.
The 1930s was a period of significant change in Gee's Bend. A local merchant who had extended credit to the residents of the Bend died, and his family demanded immediate payment of all debts owed to him. Families watched as all their food, animals, tools and seed were taken from them. Members of the community might have perished but for rations distributed by the Red Cross and a decision by the Van de Graaff family to waive rents. In 1937 the Van de Graaff family sold their land to the federal government, and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) established Gee's Bend Farms Inc., a pilot project of a cooperative-based program designed to sustain the inhabitants. The government built houses, subdivided the property, and sold tracts of land to the local families, for the first time giving the African American population control of the land they worked. During this period, the community also became the subject of several FSA-sponsored photographers, including Marion Post Wolcott and Arthur Rothstein.
In the later years of the Depression, the advent of widespread use of mechanization in agriculture brought additional hardships to small farmers and caused the first major exodus from Gee's Bend. Many residents, however, stayed on their land because it belonged to them. In 1949 a U.S. post office was established in Gee's Bend, and the federal government imposed the name Boykin on the community, against the wishes of most of the residents. Then in 1962, a dam was constructed on the Alabama River, flooding thousands of acres of the most fertile land in the Gee's Bend community. During the civil rights era, Wilcox County officials terminated ferry service across the Alabama River, necessitating a two-hour drive to Camden, the county seat. At the time, not a single black person was registered to vote in Wilcox County, and the cessation of ferry service was one of many attempts to keep it that way.
Since the 1960s, Gee's Bend has gained significant national attention from the quilts produced by women in the community, as well as those produced by the Freedom Quilting Bee in neighboring Alberta. Photographer John Reese and writer/storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham visited Gee's Bend in 1980-81 as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities project to document the community. In the late 1990s, a folk-art collector from Atlanta, Georgia, after seeing a photograph made by Roland Freeman of a quilt draped over a woodpile, went to the area and bought hundreds of quilts. The pieces have been heralded as brilliant pieces of modern art. A collection of quilts from Gee's Bend was shown at the Houston Museum of Art before traveling to the Whitney Museum in New York City, where it again received high acclaim. The exhibit also proved to be controversial, however, and initiated serious academic discussions on the definition of art.
The descendants of slaves and sharecroppers still populate Gee's Bend today, but the lack of jobs and infrastructure has burdened the community with the same crippling poverty found across much of the Black Belt.
According to the 2010 Census, the population of the Boykin community was 275. Of that total, 95.3 percent identified themselves as African American, 4.0 percent as white, and 0.7 percent as Hispanic. Median household income in 1999 was $24,250, and per capita income was $6,048.
The workforce in present-day Boykin is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Manufacturing (35.9 percent)
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (38.0 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (26.1 percent)
There are no schools in the Boykin Community. Education is overseen by the Wilcox County Public Schools.
County Road 29 runs east-west through Boykin. There is a ferry service between Boykin and the city of Camden on the south side of the Alabama River.
Events and Places of Interest
Roland Cooper State Park lies across the Alabama River to the southeast of the community.
Jackson, Harvey H., III. Rivers of History: Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Keurten, Bruce, and John DiJulio. From Fields of Promise. VHS. Auburn, Ala.: Auburn Television, 1993.
Maharidge, Dale, and Michael Williamson. And Their Children after Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.
Windham, Kathryn Tucker. Twice Blessed. Montgomery, Ala.: Black Belt, 1996.
Published March 9, 2007
Last updated February 28, 2013