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Gee’s Bend Genius

Gee’s Bend Genius

Road signs in Gee’s Bend outside the quilters’ homes reproduce the U.S. postage stamps honoring their work. (Photo courtesy of Fred Sparling)

She came to the door of her little old house slowly, dressed in a housecoat and slippers. Her hair was drawn up tightly in a bun. Her face was chiseled, her expression unfriendly. Joyce and I did not know what to expect, since we had been warned by her cousin that she was very difficult. 

“What do you want? I don’t talk to no strangers.”

“We want to talk to you about your quilts,” said Joyce, my wife.

“No need to, it’s all in the book. I said all I done gonna say.”

“But we love your work, and just want a few minutes.”

“I don’t like people I don’t know. If you want to talk about quilts, you will have to pay.”

We started to leave, carrying with us the very heavy book “Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts.” But she thought better of it, and invited us into her small dark room, where a TV blared. She was alone. It was awkward, but finally we did as she said and sat down.

To protect her identity, I will call her Louise. She lives in Gee’s Bend, Ala., a small enclave that harbors only several hundred people, all African American. Many are named Pettway, after the second owner who bought the plantation from Joseph Gee. Mark Pettway marched his 100 slaves all the way from North Carolina to this isolated bit of low country south of Selma, surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. 

The Civil War did not change things much. In the Great Depression, the price of cotton fell, and they fell into even deeper debt. Everyone literally lost everything they had when a white woman across the river who owned their debt sent in an army of men, taking every mule, pig, chicken, cow, hoe, anything and everything except the wood-slatted homes. 

They survived by hunting wild animals in the swamps, picking wild plants and fruit, and the beneficence of the Red Cross. The community was declared the poorest in the United States during the Depression. FDR built homes and enabled purchase of the land. The people stayed on the land until the last few decades, and still the elders remain. 

It was cold in the winter. The wind blew up through the slats in the floors and through cracks in the walls, even though they were lined with old newspapers and magazines. The women made quilts to keep warm, using whatever they had: old feed sacks, fertilizer bags, clothes. They had done this for 150 years. The tradition continued after electricity arrived in the 1960s. 

Things got a bit better when the Freedom Quilting Bee was organized to make quilts for sale through big Northern stores, but many of the women did not like working to set patterns, preferring to do things their way. Corduroy was introduced, and some women started using corduroy scraps as well as old pieces of worn-out denim and print dresses or blouses in their own quilts. 

The civil rights uprisings of the 1960s were centered close by. Citizens were teargassed in Camden as they prepared to register to vote. The bridge across the Alabama River in Selma was the site of a famous confrontation in 1965, when people claiming their right to vote were attacked with dogs and fire hoses and many suffered terrible beatings on “Bloody Sunday.” They marched from Selma to Montgomery, despite being thrown in jail and teargassed. Many of the marchers were women, because the men needed their jobs. Among the women were quilters from Gee’s Bend. 

William Arnett, a scholar of Southern folk and yard art, was interested in quilts and discovered Gee’s Bend when he saw a photograph of an unusual quilt. Quilts are legion, but these were different. He traveled to Wilcox County, where the quilt was said to have been made, and finally found the old woman who made the quilt, Annie Mae Young. She refused to take money for her “raggly old quilt,” but Arnett persisted. 

He found other quilts, equally grand. He was impressed with the use of color and abstract form, the bending of geometry, the originality of the work that grew up and persisted in a community almost totally cut off from the mainstream. Poor women with virtually no material riches found the time and energy to create not just warm quilts, but fine art. Their work was compared to Klee, Mondrian, Matisse, and others. They did it undoubtedly because it was one thing they could do to bring beauty into their lives, something about which they could be proud. 

Arnett and his brother Paul enlisted people with deep pockets, forming the Tinwood Alliance. Over 90 percent of the quilts produced over generations had been burned or thrown away, and there was some urgency to preserve the best of the remainder. The collected quilts began a glorious journey from obscurity to fame. Starting in 2002, exhibitions traveled through great museums in Houston, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and elsewhere. 

An art critic from the New York Times rebuffed other skeptics and stated that the quilts were some of the best abstract art produced in America in 100 years. Annie Mae Young was called one of America’s greatest artists. Joyce, our daughter Betsey and I saw the exhibition on its last day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and were thrilled. Many of the finest quilts in that exhibition were done by Louise.

Across the River

A visit to Gee’s Bend was arranged in 2009 with the help of the internet and several phone calls. The celebration of Bloody Sunday in Selma ended the day before our arrival in Gee’s Bend. We drove across that bridge, now a national monument, to get there. The ferry from Camden carried us across the river to Gee’s Bend, a very small place in the low country, with Spanish moss draped over the trees. Fog covered the river, as the sun rose. 

We stayed with Louise’s cousin Qunnie, in her trailer. Qunnie also had lovely quilts in the museum exhibition. The roosters and the owls awakened us. Goats and piglets ran freely through the yard. It was early March, and spring was coming fast. Qunnie fed us ham and bacon from their small farm, eggs from their chickens, greens from their garden, grits, sweet potato pie and yams and apples. She would not give us Louise’s phone number, and did not want us to tell Louise that she had told us where she lived. Qunnie grew up with Louise, knew of her troubled past, and seemed afraid to trigger Louise’s ire.

Qunnie had purchased and framed a small picture of Barack Obama, Michelle, and their two daughters on the night he won the election to be president of the United States. We could feel how proud she was, although her responses were controlled.

It was easy to find Louise’s house. In 2005 a special issue of U.S. Postal stamps honored the quilts of Gee’s Bend, one of which was hers. Someone erected on the side of the road large wooden signs bearing a painted image of each quilt, placed near the maker’s home. We found Louise’s “quilt” and drove down the red clay lane. At the end there were two little homes and a trailer, with several dilapidated old cars. One home seemed occupied. Joyce’s soft knock eventually brought Louise to the door. 

Louise turned off the TV. Joyce and I sat on simple wooden chairs, facing Louise. Gradually she softened. We did not have a tape recorder, and can’t do justice to the dialect. She shared stories about her life and art. Her life was tough, even brutal. Her parents left her when she was 7 or 8, and she was raised by a sequence of relatives. She was responsible for a severely handicapped brother, who grew to be large and lived for 20 years. “Had to do everything, number one, number two, carry him to the fields where I worked.” 

She started working the fields at age 7. She got to school now and then, but never learned to read. Picking cotton wasn’t as bad as cucumbers or okra. “Only got a nickel a day sometimes, or nothin.” Her husband was abusive. She suffered terrible headaches. She raised “seven heads of childrun.” She made quilts from her teenage years, throughout all the troubles. 

Her children visit now and then, but all live elsewhere. She is alone except for a weekly visit by Meals on Wheels and weekly visits by home health nurses. She is afraid of young men who sometimes try to break in, and keeps a gun. Her aches and pains are terrible — back, knees, hands, head. Her psychiatrist has her on medicines, as does her doctor for high blood pressure and cholesterol. She no longer goes to church, and neither visits nor is visited by others in the community, whom she seems to have offended. She does not like to quilt with others, although there are photographs that show her working with Mary Lee Bendolph, another great quilter and sweet matriarch. 

Louise warmed up, seeming to trust us. She retrieved three unfinished quilts from a back room. They are beautiful, as good as any in the books or exhibitions, but they need to be quilted. Her right third finger, her quilting finger, can’t tolerate a thimble, too much osteoarthritis. A son in Mobile knows how to quilt, but he doesn’t stay with it the way she did when she was able to do the work. “I worked hard, staying up till 2 a.m., never mind I was tired.” Her son doesn’t come often, and doesn’t stay long. No, she will not ask any of the women at the Gee’s Bend quilting collective to help her. She described how she would finish the quilts, if she could. Like Annie Mae Young, she works in her head, intellectualizing the quilts before they are put together. We agonized over the likelihood that they will remain unfinished. 

Louise’s spoken language was clear, focused, and very intelligent. She laughed, but also scowled when we seemed to smile inappropriately. We were in what seemed a debate at times, and she was fully our equal. She knew much about past and recent history. Her vocabulary surprised us, perhaps garnered from TV. She asked what we did, and we responded that we are teachers. She enthused, and offered that she always wanted to teach, but never could go to school; it was painful to watch the white kids going by in the school bus when she and the other black kids were in the fields all day. 

She did not want us to leave, seemed hungry for conversation. “You talk nice, say nice things, even though I have a different complexion.” She could not believe we were 72. She was broken down at 66. We wanted to say that we had a much easier life, but did not. We took no photos, and did not ask her to autograph the book. 

Louise has a copy of “Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts,” and takes great pleasure in looking at the photos, even though she can’t read the text. She is proud of her work and knows it will outlast her. “The quilts are like handwriting on the wall. They will last forever … I don’t know where my quilts are, but they are in a museum.” 

We would write her. “It will be some time before I read them. I don’t do reading. One of my children will have to come. Send me a cake.” She followed us out to our car, bent over her cane. She shook our hands but refused a hug. We could be friends, if we were closer. She needs friends to talk to her.

Through Struggle and Celebration

The women gather to sew and sell their work in the quilters association building. (Photo courtesy of Fred Sparling)

The old women at the quilting collective were welcoming, and literally everyone hugged us. We inspected a large inventory of unsold quilts. Rita Mae Pettway and Betty Bendolph Setzer were quilting a large piece, laid out on frame. Nancy Pettway, Lola Pettway, and Ruth Kennedy passed through and we talked. 

China Pettway and Florine Smith told stories about traveling to many museums to see the exhibitions, and how grateful they were that the Arnett brothers did not forget them. As many as 60 women traveled in two buses. Louise went to a few museums, but was upset by the crowds of people and avoided most of the openings and celebrations. The museum in Milwaukee was the best. Many of the women were flown to California for exhibitions there. People were nice to them. They were amazed to see their old quilts on a museum wall. They know their work is appreciated as serious art, which made us happy for them. 

Some of the quilters must have benefited financially from their fame. Some of their quilts sell for many thousands of dollars. They now have refrigerators, freezers, heat, water, washing machines, but otherwise much is the same, and life remains hard for everyone. Few farm much anymore, perhaps because food stamps are available. There is not a single store of any kind, after the one store burned down. The post office is closed. There are almost no jobs of any sort for the young people. Many homes are abandoned, and few children were evident. 

Pastor Clinton Pettway came in to the collective and told our hostess Mary Ann Pettway that we should go down to the river where a celebration of some sort was about to begin. Under the roof of a riverside park, a group of children from a Montessori school in Vermont was gathered with many of the old quilters from the community. Five of the women quilters sang gospel songs, in harmony, clapping and swaying. Florine, a very large woman who could only walk with difficulty, sang with a beautiful strong voice. China sang well. Nettie Young, a great quilter and one of the Montgomery marchers, rail thin and alert at 91, stood with her cane and sang along with Mary Ann Pettway and Mary Lee Bendolph. We were introduced and Mary Lee embraced us, cheek to cheek. 

The children were in their early teens, and were studying civil rights. They stood up one at a time on top of a table and delivered a speech taken from the leaders of the civil rights movement. First there was a young white man, then an Asian girl, then a pair of white girls, finally a tall black adolescent boy, five of them in all. Mary Lee sat right in front of us, repeatedly taking off her glasses to wipe away hear tears, nodding her head affirmatively as the abuses of the past were recounted. We suppressed tears too. Nettie, who was arrested and jailed in the march to Montgomery, listened stony faced. Mary Lee grew tired, and guitars took over. It was a celebration of the triumph of justice, and a recalling of the many mean acts and terrible injustices that were so abundant here. The women allowed that much still needed to be done, but things were better. 

We spent two hours one evening in Bible school with several of the quilters, including Mary Lee and China. Everyone participated in a series of questions and answers. The congregation was very welcoming. 

The ferry carried us over the river once again. We passed through towns with lovely old white clapboard former plantation owner’s homes. Tuskegee is not far along the road past Montgomery, and we stopped. This was the site of the infamous experiment on the natural history of syphilis in untreated African American men now generally known as “Bad Blood.” 

A quilt made by Nettie Young. (Photo courtesy of Fred Sparling)

We can’t get the people in Gee’s Bend out of our minds, Louise especially. Bitter but sweet, needy but intolerant, intelligent but illiterate, talented but unable to work, she is a complex mix of paradoxes, and especially lovable. Joyce returned a month later with a cake for her doorstep, bringing with her Betsey and her two small children. They hoped Louise got it; she was not home. They visited with Nettie Young in her small home, and marveled at her explanation of one of her most unusual quilts, with moons and stars on a red background. “Why that was just trying to capture what I saw at night, looking up through the roof slats at the heavens.” 

Fred Sparling

Fred Sparling is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

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