The Freedom Quilting Bee is a quilting cooperative established in 1966 by a group of African American women in the community of Rehoboth, 46 miles from Selma, in Wilcox County. The groups arose during the civil rights movement and is heralded for having spawned a renaissance of the popularity of quilting in American interior décor in the 1960s. The Freedom Quilting Bee has in recent years been confused with the nationally known group the Quilters of Gee's Bend, who reside in the nearby community of Boykin (formerly Gee's Bend). Some quilters in the Freedom Quilting Bee have belonged to both groups.
The Freedom Quilting Bee was born in the civil rights movement as a way for poor black craftswomen in the Alabama Black Belt to earn money for their families. Most of the members rallied for voting rights in the Selma-to-Montgomery March, or in Camden, the Wilcox County seat. Despite the passage of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, a direct outcome of the Selma march, the region remained in turmoil. An Episcopal priest, Father Francis X. Walter, a Mobile native, had come home to Alabama from a church in New Jersey to head the Selma Inter-religious Project (SIP), a coalition of 10 nationwide religious denominations serving as a spiritual presence in Selma in the aftermath of the march. While lost driving around near the remote community of Possum Bend in Wilcox County, he spied a clothesline with three quilts in bold, primary colors, unlike any he had seen before.
At the time, the Op art movement, which focused on bold geometric shapes and patterns, was popular in the art world of New York City. Walter saw similar themes expressed in the patterns on the quilts and believed that the quilters around Selma could form a quilting coalition to fund civil rights projects. As he approached the home to inquire about the quilts, a black woman who saw him coming fled to the back woods. Such were race relations in the Black Belt, even after passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Soon after that backwoods encounter with Ora McDaniels, he stopped by the home of another local African American quilter to discuss the craft. After a friend in New York suggested a quilt auction as a fund raiser, Walter then met with Ella Saulsbury, a local field representative from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and then returned with her to visit McDaniels to discuss placing some of the Wilcox county quilts in the auction.
Prior to the group's official status, its purpose was the collection of quilts for sale at the New York auction. As the priest went door-to-door for the project, however, sentiment emerged among the quilters for a permanent quilting cooperative for black women of the area. Quilter Minder Coleman of Alberta had been president of Gee's Bend Farms, Inc., a New Deal cooperative community under the Farm Security Administration. She envisioned a quilting business and offered to serve as chair. Momentum blossomed for the establishment of a cooperative, with members earning the proceeds. Thus, on March 26, 1966, the Freedom Bee was officially organized, and those present formed a cooperative, elected officers, set up a board of directors, and adopted a charter. The group counted 60 members from across the Black Belt, with its nucleus in Rehoboth (also known then as Route 1, Alberta), because that was the home of its manager, Estelle Witherspoon, a skilled and politically savvy community leader.
With publicity in New York, Walter arranged for friends to stage two quilt auctions that were promoted as ways to help black women who had fought for their civil rights. Produced by former Alabamians, the first auction, March 27, 1966, was held in a photography studio near Central Park West. Advertising consisted of a promotional sheet, a sign in the studio window, and word of mouth. One of the promoters also arranged for New York City wholesale home furnishings fabric houses to donate and send down cloth scraps for use in the quilts. The second auction, May 24, 1966, was held in the basement hall of the Unitarian-Universalist Community Church of New York. By that time, the promoters found a communications professional to do volunteer publicity. A paragraph appeared in The New York Times, courtesy of a Mississippi-born reporter, and posters were printed and word-of-mouth continued.
Prior to that first auction, the priest went up and down the roads, asking for quilts to be shipped off. Some women took stitchworks directly from their beds. The quilts themselves were popular with the auction-goers. Patterns reflected styles spanning at least a century of black quilting in the area, including the Roman Cross, Pine Burr, and Chestnut Bud. Especially poignant to prospective buyers were worn-out denim swatches, made from blue jeans after the men could no longer use them in the corn and cotton fields. The auctions stirred momentum and quilts went from $10-15 to $100 and upwards after the first two auctions. Sister Parrish, a New York interior decorator, purchased quilted material from the co-op for use in decorating her clients' homes, and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland promoted the quilting styles in the influential fashion magazine. High-end department stores such as Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue bought quilts to sell to their customers, and The New York Times covered the group and generated publicity for the women and their work.
The quilts caught the attention of influential artists, including Lee Krasner, widow of abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, and the quilters exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution. Promoters from New York ran sewing schools at the co-op building that rose up from a former cornfield. The women learned to conduct business, and for the first time, they earned money, enabling them to acquire indoor bathrooms and roofs that did not leak and to provide their children with high school graduation rings and college tuition. They also fostered a nationwide quilting revival.
In the 1970s, the co-op decided to limit patterns to a few, producing look-alikes to meet market requirements. They no longer crafted original, one-of-a-kind showpieces, and the change drew some criticism. But members were committed to improving their lives and the lives of their children and raising the economic standards in their community. In addition to quilting, the group filled sewing contracts for Sears, sold through larger co-ops, and took on projects through the New York-based Rural Development Leadership Network. By the mid-1990s, many of the members had retired, died, or taken steadier jobs outside the county, and the Freedom Quilting Bee lost the momentum it had had during 1960s activism.
Despite these changes, a small group continued the work. Local students received summer training. Then in 2004, Hurricane Ivan damaged the Bee's traditional workplace, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Sewing Center, causing the handful of remaining quilters to work in the living room of manager Rennie Miller. Retired from management in New York state, Miller had received a college education paid for in part by monies earned by her mother, Nettie Young, in the early Freedom Quilting Bee. Like most of the early Bee members, Young possesses strong, proud recollections of her civil rights activism. Another, Lucy Marie Mingo, was the most educated member, having studied on scholarship at Spring Hill College in Mobile. One of her quilts is now in the possession of the Birmingham Museum of Art.
At present, the co-op continues to sell at Black Belt Treasures, in Camden, a partnership between the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission and the University of Alabama, where the quilts sell for between $500 and $600. The commission acquired grants for the Freedom Quilting Bee to repair its building. With the partial move back to the historic structure in April 2008 and the quest for operating funds, the entire area hopes that new generations will craft the old Bear's Paw, Nine Patch, and Grandmother's Dream, returning the industry to the economic and cultural heyday of its past. If funds can be found, the Bee hopes to offer salaries to new members wishing to join and to provide after-school quilting classes to ensure the continuation of the quilting tradition.
Contact information: Freedom Quilting Bee, Fannie Etheridge, Manager; 4295 County Road 29, Alberta, Alabama, 36720; 334-573-9500.
Callahan, Nancy. The Freedom Quilting Bee. 1987. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.
Published August 8, 2008
Last updated October 9, 2012