Gee’s Bend Quilt Mural Trail Located in Boykin, in northern Wilcox County, the Gee’s Bend Quilters’ Collective is a community of quilters who produce and promote the distinctive craftwork of the relatively isolated Black Belt community, known to its residents as Gee’s Bend. In the 1990s, the quilts made by the African American women there garnered national attention as striking examples of American folk art. The women established the Quilters’ Collective in 2003 to aid in marketing and selling their craftwork, and in 2007, the community established a Quilt Mural Trail along County Road 29 to celebrate the Collective and draw tourism to the area.
The Gee’s Bend quilters first drew national attention in the years following the Great Depression. Most of the residents of Gee’s Bend earned a living as sharecroppers and tenant farmers on the estate of Camden furnishings merchant Ephraim O. Rentz. Upon his death in 1924, his estate foreclosed on many Gee’s Bend families, seizing livestock, farm implements, tools, and food to pay their debts. Without the means to earn a living, the residents of Gee’s Bend were unable to pay rent to absentee landlord, Hargrove Van de Graaff, who allowed his tenants to stay rent-free until relief could be found.
Gee’s Bend Quilt In 1937, Van de Graaff sold his land to the federal government, and the Farm Security Administration, a community relief program that was part of Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal strategy, started a farming cooperative called Gee’s Bend Inc. During this time period, the community came to national attention when photographers Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Walcott traveled there on behalf of the Resettlement Administration to document poverty in the area. They captured many aspects of community life, although they took no photos of the quilts, and published the photos in the New York Times Magazine and in William Saroyan’s collaborative novel, partially entitled Look At Us/Let’s See/Here We Are/Look Hard.
In the 1960s, some Gee’s Bend quilters collaborated with the Freedom Quilting Bee, a collective founded in nearby Rehoboth by craftswomen to help earn money for their families. The women of the Freedom Quilting Bee, including the Gee’s Bend quilters, participated in the voting rights drives, supporting the Selma to Montgomery March. Their civil rights activism led to the closure of the Gee’s Bend Ferry, which was the shortest route to the county seat in Camden, in an effort to prevent the primarily African American population of Gee’s Bend from registering to vote. Without the ferry, residents faced a more difficult and much longer overland journey.
Gee’s Bend Quilters Gee’s Bend quilters returned to the public eye in 1993, when photographer Roland Freeman visited Wilcox County to meet with the Freedom Quilting Bee. He published a book of his photographs, A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories, and featured a striking orange and blue quilt by Gee’s Bend resident Annie Mae Young. Art collector William Arnett came upon a photograph of a Gee’s Bend quilt while researching the African American quilt tradition. Arnett had a long-time interest in African American vernacular art and founded the organization Souls Grown Deep to promote African American artists and their art. Arnett traveled to Gee’s Bend to meet Annie Mae Young and other quilters, and in 1998 Arnett and his four sons created the Tinwood Alliance, a nonprofit company focused on promoting the quilts.
In 2002, at Arnett’s urging, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, hosted The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition, featuring more than 70 of the Gee’s Bend quilts by 45 different quilters. The exhibition traveled across the United States until 2006, appearing in New York City, Boston, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and in Alabama at the Mobile Museum of Art in Mobile and at Auburn University‘s Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art in Auburn. Collectively, the exhibit displayed the work of 42 women from four generations of Gee’s Bend quilters, including Annie Mae Young’s famous “Housetop” quilt, which had first caught Arnett’s eye. The exhibit received excellent reviews from art critics, vaulting the quilts to fame and precipitating the 2003 foundation of the Gee’s Bend Quilters’ Collective, whose purpose is to aid the quilters market their quilts to a wider public as well to celebrate their craftwork. The quilts were featured in another major traveling exhibition, Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, from 2006 to 2008, with stops in Baltimore, Denver, Philadelphia, and other cities.
Gee’s Bend Quilt Stamps In 2006, the United States Postal Service issued Quilts of Gee’s Bend commemorative stamps, which featured ten designs chosen by USPS art director Derry Noyes. These same designs would be featured in the Gee’s Bend Quilt Mural Trail, which was created in 2007. The mural trail follows County Road 29, starting at the Freedom Quilting Bee headquarters and marking quilters’ homes, the ferry terminal, and the old Gee’s Bend Community House. Also in 2007, three Gee’s Bend quilters, Annie Mae Young, Lucinda Pettway, and Loretta Pettway, filed lawsuits against the Arnetts and the Tinwood Alliance stating that they had been swindled out of their intellectual property rights to the images of their quilts and their names. The Arnetts and other members of the Quilting Collective stated that the charges were baseless. The cases were dismissed in the federal district court in Mobile the following year, with representatives of the parties involved stating only that the matter had been “resolved.”
In 2014, Collective member Lucy Mingo, Mary Ann Pettway, and Joe Cunningham were featured in an episode of the PBS series Craft in America entitled “Industry: Handmade in the Creative Economy.” Gee’s Bend quilts have entered the permanent collections of prominent art museum across the United States as well as the American public consciousness. The Gee’s Bend Quilters’ Collective hosts an annual quilting retreat for people who wish to learn their techniques first-hand. Gee’s Bend quilters continue their craft at the Gee’s Bend Ferry Terminal and Welcome Center, where their quilts are offered for sale.
Arnett, Paul, Joanne Cubbs, and Eugene W, Metcalf Jr. eds. Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt. Atlanta, Ga.: Tinwood Books, 2006.
Beardsley, John. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. Atlanta, Ga.: Tinwood Books/Houston Museum of Fine Arts, 2002.
Beardsley, John, William Arnett, Paul Arnett and Jane Livingston. Gee’s Bend: The Women and their Quilts. Atlanta, Ga.: Tinwood Books, 2002.