When I was raising my children in the small, rural Catskill mountain town of Bovina Center, New York, I discovered the art of quilting had never died there. It was always an active, vibrant, and visceral part of the secluded agricultural town of a few hundred residents. There I learned the lovely art of quilting from farm women and subsequently made many quilts: for my three children, who designed what they liked; friendship quilts; and, with my talented quilting friend, Marilyn Gallant, coordinated a town quilt that, more than three decades later, still hangs on a wall in the Bovina Historical Museum.
Not long ago, at the Crozet Library, I was looking through the video collection and found two about quilting: The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend and another, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. The covers showed a very primitive black and white quilt with one red block. The lines were crooked and there appeared to be no plan or pattern. Puzzled and intrigued, I brought both videos home and over the next two evenings, watched a rich and fascinating quilting tradition of five generations of Arkansas women unfold before me.
These quilters also lived in a tiny rural town of 700 where quilting never faded as an art, and I felt an immediate kinship with them. Most were in my age group, seventh decade, and I felt particularly drawn to their history. For the quilters of Gee’s Bend were not the average southern women quilters; they were of African-American descent and traced their heritage directly back to slavery.
The town of Gee’s Bend came into the hands of Joseph Gee after the Creek Indians were “dispatched” by war in 1814. The narrow fifteen mile “quirky piece of geography” was comprised of thousands of secluded acres that were surrounded on three sides by the bridgeless Alabama River and its swamps. Gee established a cotton plantation and, following his death ten years later, the plantation passed through a succession of Gees, until eventually landing into the hands of Mark Pettway, a Gee relative to whom the plantation was indebted. With the property came with 101 slaves.
It was common for slaves to have their master’s surname and many of the quilters interviewed were named Pettway. “The Civil War brought ‘freedom,’ but little other change to the black residents of Gee’s Bend. They became tenant farmers, rather than chattel, and continued to farm the land.” The videos traced a long, difficult history that included the abject poverty of the Great Depression, a new white supremacist owner, who wanted to repopulate the town with white farmers, and so much more, until the quilters were discovered and came to prominence as national artists.
If you love quilting and have not heard of the Gee’s Bend quilters, I believe you will find this exceptional story a fascinating, beloved addition to your stash of quilting history.
NOTE: Quotes taken from “Gee’s Bend, The Architecture of the Quilt,” edited by Paul Arnett, Joanne Cubbs, Eugene W. Metcalf, Jr.