A Fascinating Story: The Quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama

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 Alabama 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.


About Mary Jo Doig

At the turn of the millennium, I arrived at a cross-road that brought me to a splendid, if unforeseen place, almost as if I were a traveler on Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled. I was single again, my three children were grown and building their lives, I'd experienced a health issue and was working on an improved lifestyle. I also ached to do two other things: (1) change my long human services career in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains, where winter seemed to be at least seven months out of every year, and (2) move to a warmer place in the universe. My decision: did I want to continue on the path I'd been following pretty much all my life, or could I gather my then-fragile courage and start life brand new somewhere else? These were scary thoughts for a single woman in her late 50s. Five hundred miles away, though, I fell in love with a new mountain range, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where I knew not a soul except my daughter who was attending college in the Shenandoah Valley, and I moved. I rented a tiny cabin on a mountain in the woods and lived there in solitude for two years, working in a new career by day and, when home, communing with the incredible natural beauty that surrounded me. There I also began to write my life stories, which were aching for release. I joined the Story Circle Network in early 2001, a rich place in cyberspace for women life writers, where I strengthened my written voice and began sharing my stories. I found so many opportunities to grow: 10 year facilitator for an online writing circle of women writers across the country; thirteen year editor of the "True Words from Real Women" section of the quarterly Journal; a reader and reviewer of women's memoirs for the SCN Book Review site; program chair for two Stories from the Heart national conferences in Austin, T. Presently I'm teaching Women's Life-Writing and Older Women's Legacy workshops in my part of the world in Central Virginia and facilitating the ongoing Circle of Memories Writing Circle (formerly an OWL workshop that continued on) at the Crozet Public Library. I am blessed with three wonderful children, a son and two daughters; a small, huge-hearted family; dear friends; my beagle Addie and cat Button. My hobbies include reading, writing, editing, cooking, gardening, quilting, knitting, biking, and simply being with the profound beauty of the mountains that embrace my small two acres in the Blue Ridge. The life stories I began writing in 2001 have grown deeper with time, re-writes, and personal growth. All these years later, I'm scheduled to publish my memoir, Stitching a Patchwork Life, in 2018.
This entry was posted in Bovina Stories, Change, Poverty, Quilts, Simplicity. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A Fascinating Story: The Quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama

  1. Elaine Ercolano says:

    Hi Mary Jo:

    Interesting story. I have a friend who is a quilter and I will forward to her as I’m sure she will appreciate. I read a book recently that also dealt with the importance of quilting as part of the African American experience. It is “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy it.

    Hope all is well with you and that you had a good summer. It’s been a relatively cool one here but enjoyable. I wait all year for those wonderful days on the beach with family and friends. Hugh and I are fine. He has put in an impressive vegetable garden and it’s been great to have homegrown veggies.

    I haven’t seen Bonnie or Bill of late but hope they and Jackie are doing ok. Thanks for keeping in the loop with your writings. I always enjoy reading them. Love, Elaine

    Sent from My iPad



    • Mary Jo Doig says:

      I’m getting back to blogging again. Thanks for your thoughts; so good to hear from you. I’d love to go to Gee’s Bend and talk with the women and hear their stories. It’s about 700 miles from here and I may do it.
      Enjoying my garden, too. So glad to hear you and Hugh are both fine.
      Love, Mary Jo


  2. Hello Mary Jo, I dont’ know exactly what led me to your blog but I often stumble onto quilt-related blogs as I browse the Internet. I love quilt history. I had the great good fortune to meet some of the quilters from Gees Bendwhile living in northern Virginia when the exhibit of their quilts came to DC. Before that, I met Nancy Callahan who wrote “The Freedom Quilting Bee” about the quilters of Wilcox County which is where Gees Bend is located. After I saw the Gees Bend I also read “The Last Folk Hero” by Andrew Dietz which also covers a lot of the story of the quilters of Gees Bend. I thought you might enjoy these books, too. I love the singing that the quilters do while they are quitling together! The Shenandoah Valley is my heart’s home! Check out the book “Quilts of Virginia 1607-1899”. My personal blog is called Quilt History Reports. I love to write but it is mostly about family memories or about quilt history or an individual quilter’s history. I love your story about reinventing yourself! Good luck with your writing!!


    • Mary Jo Doig says:

      Hi Karen,
      Thanks for your note and sharing your end of our common interest. I find myself aching to meet some of the Gee’s Bend quilters, primarily Loretta Pettman, with whom I feel a kinship from interviews I’ve seen. I’m fully absorbed in the beautiful “Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt” at the moment and understanding now where and how the early designs were derived. Thanks for telling me about the above books. I will be moving on to both of them after my present one. How wonderful that you were able to attend the DC exhibit of their quilts and meet the quilters. If I hear of another one, I will be there!
      I, too, was deeply moved by their singing while quilting, and the obvious joy and peace the GB women possess in their faith. I find their entire story profoundly moving.
      My primary passion is women’s memoir. I completed my own memoir this year and am now doing some revision. I also edit women’s life stories for the Story Circle Network, a national organization for women with stories to tell. I shiver when I think of all the life stories the GB women possess and will be looking to see what’s out there for me to read.
      Very nice to talk with you!


  3. Melissa Middleswart says:

    Interesting–I followed a Story Circle facebook note on your Bovina posting, which I really enjoyed, then kept going–just one question, isn’t Gee’s Bend and their quilters in Alabama, rather than Arkansas? I had seen some postings on those quilters in 2 blogs that I follow–Jon Katz and his wife, Maria Wulf, and she had visited the Gee’s Bend ladies last summer, I think it was.


    • Mary Jo Doig says:

      I’ve thought of visiting the Gees Bend quilters. I’d love to talk with some of them. Thanks so much for mentioning Jon Katz and Maria Wulf. I’m going to search for the blog.


      • Melissa Middleswart says:

        Look for Bedlamfarm.com by Jon Katz. Then at the bottom of any of his blog pages are some links. One is to Full Moon FIber Art, which is his wife Maria’s blog. So just now I typed in Gees Bend in the search box on her blog and found several entries to Gee’s Bend. She spent most of a week there over a year ago and I remember her writing about it before, during and after. Off to read some more of your blog. : )


  4. Melissa Middleswart says:

    Oops, I see that your title says Alabama, but then in the body of the blog, it says Arkansas. Interesting story and writing, thanks for blogging.


    • Mary Jo Doig says:

      Hi Melissa,
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing my story. Also, many thanks for letting me know of my senior Arkansas moment in the Gees Bend story. Going in to fix it right now. Nice to talk!


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