In the days before the art collectors came to Gee’s Bend, Claudia Pettway Charley didn’t consider quilting to be an artform. Instead, it was something far more practical.
“The quilts would cover me up as a child and keep me warm through the winter months,” she says. “Up until then, it really wasn’t about making art, but that’s what it soon became.”
Located on a peninsula hemmed in on three sides by the muddy Alabama River, Gee’s Bend is situated in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, a region known for its dark, fertile soil. It’s also home to 9 of the 10 poorest counties in the state.
As a chorus of grasshoppers sings and mosquitoes buzz, Charley recalls how curator William “Bill” Arnett organized a touring exhibit of his personal collection of Gee’s Bend quilts in the early 2000s. Soon after that, big-city art dealers from places like New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta began coming to Gee’s Bend in droves. They would cruise past fields of donkeys and tumbledown houses to buy up armfuls of quilts. The textiles were later displayed in world-class institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Royal Academy of Art in London. They were an instant hit. In 2002, when the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition arrived at the Whitney Museum in New York, they were described as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced” by the New York Times.
Although it was flattering to finally be recognized by the broader art community, the quilting craze made little impact on the long-term economic health of Gee’s Bend since the purchases were an unpredictable source of income.
“They like to say that they ‘discovered’ us,” Charley says. “But really, we were always here.”
Before their work became the art world’s fixation, quilting had long been a part of Gee’s Bend’s culture, and its history in the area stretches back to the mid-1800s. According to the National Gallery of Art, the craft is believed to have been brought to Gee’s Bend by Dinah Miller, an enslaved woman. After being kidnapped when she was 13 years old from her home in Africa, she was sold for a dime to Joseph Gee, who owned the local Pettway cotton plantation.
Most of the town’s 208 residents can trace their family history back to the Pettway Plantation. After the Emancipation Proclamation, which was officially recognized by Alabama in 1866, many in Gee’s Bend were forced to turn to sharecropping—and so arose a seemingly inescapable cycle of debt and poverty. For most of modern history, the area has remained disenfranchised and underserviced. The town still does not have a single gas station or restaurant.
But some residents of Gee’s Bend, like Mensie Lee Pettway, have been fighting to improve the town—and, in turn, the country. Pettway, a mother of seven, lives on the fringes of Gee’s Bend and greets me on her porch while wearing a dress embroidered with tiny wildflowers.
She’s quilted ever since she was a young woman, but in the 1960s, her work took on a political edge. In 1961, just as the Civil Rights Movement was picking up momentum, a newly built dam flooded the best farmland in the area, decimating the local economy. The incident also forced the local ferry to shut down, turning a 15-minute boat ride to the town of Camden—the nearest place to vote—into an hours-long drive through 40 miles of narrow, winding back-country roads. The ferry wasn’t reinstalled in 2006—45 years later. The disaster effectively took away most Gee’s Bend residents’ ability to vote or, at the very least, made it extremely inconvenient. Pettway, along with other Gee’s Bend women, began donating the profits they made from their quilts to the Civil Rights Movement.
“See that clothesline over by the bushes?” Pettway says, pointing her finger toward the nearby scrubland. “That’s where I’d hang my quilts for sale.”
On a rainy winter’s evening in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. paid Gee’s Bend a visit to express his thanks—and to encourage the townsfolk to exercise their right to vote.
“I came over here to Gee’s Bend to tell you, you are somebody,” he preached to the crowd.
Nine months pregnant at the time, Pettway wasn’t able to make it to the speech. “I was this big,” she laughs, and pantomimes how big her belly was with her hands, which are now swollen from arthritis.
Those days have long since gone, but Gee’s Bend’s unique way of quilting has not only endured, it’s become a household name. And these days, quilting is still being used as a means to generate income and uplift the local community. But now, a younger generation is using the power of the internet to carry the torch.
In February 2021, a collective of Gee’s Bend quilters teamed up with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for southern Black artists, and Nest, another nonprofit, to launch nine online stores on Etsy, which they use to sell their work directly to consumers.
Charley’s 20-year-old daughter Francesca DeNae Charley, a fifth-generation quilter who fell in love with the craft when she was a child, says it’s been a game changer.
“I can’t sew quickly enough to keep up with the orders!” she says with a laugh.“Plus, it gives me direct contact with people who love Gee’s Bend, which I also enjoy.”
Francesca is taking me on a tour of the community. As a father and son clip-clop past on horseback, we walk past houses with roofs made of a patchwork of colorful tin sheets—they look like patterned quilts. Francesca begins pointing out changes that are transforming the community: There’s now talk of making a rundown wooden shack by the riverfront into a restaurant. It would be Gee’s Bend’s first.
“A few of the houses have been done up and they’ve also repaved the roads” she says. “But it’s people’s day-to-day lives that are really changing. The quilters now have money to travel outside the area and see the world. And through my Etsy page, I’m helping to put myself through college and help my mother if she needs anything.”
In an attempt to kick-start tourism, Gee’s Bend now holds events like the Gee’s Bend Airing of the Quilts Festival (an annual celebration of the quilt-making tradition) as well as quilting workshops four times a year in March, June, September, and November. In addition to learning the basics of quilt-making, participants are often regaled with stories about the area as well as a gospel song or two. Francesca has participated in a few of these tourism-focused sewing demonstrations. She recently showed a group of aspirational quilters how to stitch a nine-patch block, one of the craft’s most basic techniques.
But ultimately, Francesca is hoping to get other young people like her involved in preserving the town’s quilting history. The quilters of Gee’s Bend are teaming up with British brand Marfa Stance to create a line of patchwork puffer coats and are also collaborating with Greg Lauren (the nephew of fashion designer, Ralph Lauren) on a colorful collection of cargo pants and jackets. Francesca says there’s been a lack of enthusiasm from her peers about quilting, but she hopes the fashion collaborations will spark interest—the craft needs to be carried on by younger generations for it to endure.
After I say goodbye to Francesca, I pass a group of art collectors thumbing through a rainbow of textiles at Lovett’s Place Bed and Breakfast. There are quilts for sale hung all around the property, beneath trees dripping with Spanish moss.
As I hop on the final ferry of the day back to the city of Camden, dusk begins to fall as the sun fades behind the horizon. Looking across the swampy waters, I think about Claudia Pettway Charley and the other quilters of Gee’s Bend and how they’ve worked to improve this place one stitch at a time.
“Gee’s Bend was a place that was forgotten, denied, and mistreated. We had only ourselves and God to depend upon,” Charley says. “Who knew that what started out as survival skills could turn into a global art brand?”