Just 256 miles away from where I live in Mississippi is a small, predominantly black hamlet called Boykin, AL. Perched in the twists and turns of the Alabama River, inspired by the bend in the river that surrounds Boykin, the area is often referred to by its nickname, Gee’s Bend. After emancipation in 1863, the area of Gee’s Bend became sort of an anomaly for the South, as the slaves of Boykin turned to sharecroppers, eventually becoming the landowners they are today. The Great Depression later had a profound impact on the area, and the community saw a large portion of the already small population leave Gee’s Bend. To remedy the economic impact, the land that made up the former plantation was sold to the Federal Government and the Farm Security Administration, and Gee’s Bend Farms, Inc. was established. This pilot co-op project was intended to help sustain the inhabitants of the area. Tracts of land were sold to the former slaves that made up Gee’s Bend, which at the time, it was still rare for freed African American families to be landowners.
As early as the mid-19th century, a distinctive form of quilting was born in the area, passing from generation to generation of Gee’s Bend women. The first Gee’s Bend quilt was made in the early 1800s, although the exact year is unknown. For those women that stayed through the Great Depression, they finally started getting some of the credit they deserved for their quilting work.
The women of Gee’s Bend began quilting, as we know today, mostly out of necessity — because their shacks were without heat, they quilted for warmth. They didn’t know that they were shaping the way we see the art of quilting today, as such with this week’s unveiling of Michelle Obama’s portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The dress the former First Lady is wearing, painted by Amy Sherald, was inspired by a Gee’s Bend quilt.
“Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair — quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants,” an excerpt from Souls Grown Deep, a site devoted to documenting, preserving, exhibiting and promoting art from the African American community of the South.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when the women were given a big boost for their work. The quilters were visited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who stopped in to see them in 1965 on his way to Montgomery. The women also started receiving support for their work because of William S. Arnett, who helped to bring their quilts to museums in the 1990s, giving the makers an international audience.
Image above: Blocks and Stripes Work-Clothes Quilt by one of the first-born Gee’s Bend quilters, Lucy Mooney, born in 1880. This quilt was made in 1935, from cotton, denim, and wool. Photo courtesy of Souls Grown Deep. © 2018 [Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio] / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Image above: Three quilters of Gee’s Bend, taken by Carol M. Highsmith for the Library of Congress on The Spruce.
We’ve probably all seen a quilt that was inspired by a Gee’s Bend quilt. The geometric shapes and uneven lines, the colorways and imperfect stitching, all together presenting a beautiful work of art. I can remember about 10 years ago when I saw my first Gee’s Bend quilt up close. I was at my neighbor’s house and I walked into the guest room, only to see the most beautiful quilt hanging on the wall. My neighbor mentioned that he had recorded and produced a gospel record by the women of Gee’s Bend and that was their gift to him. It was a Gee’s Bend Work Clothes style quilt, complete with writing on the denim, giving you a small peek at who once wore the discarded jeans. The magnitude of this gift was not lost on the recipient and it is truly cherished by him. The next time I saw a large collection of Gee’s Bend quilts was when my local museum had a show of about 30 of the quilts. I walked through the exhibit overwhelmed, knowing the hard work and community love that went into each piece, but sad to know that some of the women never got to see their hard work and art revered the way it is today.
Over time, around 120 different women have had a hand in producing an authentic Gee’s Bend quilt — all women and all passing down the art from generation to generation. Currently, there are 50 women that make up the Gee’s Bend Collective, producing each quilt to be unique from the next. I would love to list all of their names, but here are the ones that originally began making the Gee’s Bend quilts, all born in the 1800s: Magdalene Wilson, Patty Ann Williams, Hannah Wilcox, Pearlie Irby Pettway, Henrietta Pettway, Lucy Mooney, Gertrude Miller, Rebecca Myles Jones, Maggie Benning, Delia Bennett, and Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams.
Styles of Gee’s Bend Quilts
The Work Clothes quilts are my personal favorite, because you get a look at the way fabric was not only repurposed, but also previously worn. From jeans with a worn-out knee, to old work shirts with a missing pocket to pieces of overalls or aprons, each piece is strategically placed to make it a work of art. Other styles include Abstract, the Bricklayer, Patterns, Geometric, and Sears Corduroy. The quilts of Gee’s Bend have been shown all over the world, from museum to museum. If you have the chance, please visit their work in person or on their website, where you can learn how to support their organization. I hope you will take the time to scroll down below to see some of the incredible quilts these phenomenal women have made over the years. —Erin
–The Quilts of Gee’s Bend — It’s a beautiful coffee table book, full of so much more history.
–Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt — This book shares the story of the women that make up the Gee’s Bend legacy.
–Souls Grown Deep — A non-profit organization that documents, preserves and promotes the work of leading contemporary African American artists from the Southeastern United States.
*Footnote: There are some people that don’t believe quilts of The Underground Railroad really were carrying messages and maps, and while we may never know the truth, I think it’s important to note the two sides of the argument.