Gee’s Bend, Alabama is the name of an actual physical landmark, a dramatic bend in the Alabama River that surrounds the town of Boykin on three sides. Geographically speaking, this area is Southwest of Selma by about 30 miles in an area of Alabama known as the “Black Belt”, which refers to the black topsoil and the fact that the majority of residents here are descendants of freed slaves who stayed on their land. This area is among the poorest in the state, and for its lack of a true voting pool, it receives fairly little in the way of aid or government money. Since there are no bridges, the only way to cross the Alabama River is by driving onto the Gee’s Bend ferry.
Coty’s mom had been to Gee’s Bend before and told us that to see the quilts we would need to take that ferry. We showed up for the 4:00 ferry at 3, and it turned out to be the 4:30 ferry. This wasn’t a problem because this was one of the most beautiful places that I had ever seen and we were more than happy to wait. Once the ferry arrived and we drove our car onto it, the ferry operators had a different story to tell about where to find the quilts. Turns out that all of the quilts are in Boykin and crossing the river would have left us either to wait until the next day for the ferry back, unless we drove hours out of the way to get back home. The area is essentially too poor to merit building a bridge or funding any large-scale public works. Shout-out to the Gee’s Bend ferry operators for saving us that misfortune. They told us where to find the quilts and we thanked them and drove off…disaster averted.
We reached the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to find another problem on our hands: it was closed. Though there were about 20 cars in the parking lot, there wasn’t a soul anywhere around us. We had spent so much time waiting for, getting on, and getting off the ferry that we seemed to have missed the open hours of the Collective. Coty and I were looking for the mysterious owners of the cars in the parking lot when someone yelled to us from a car on the road — “Are y’all trying to see the quilts?” Oh, WERE we trying. The woman turned out to be Nancy Pettway, one of Gee’s Bend’s quilters who really just happened to be driving by. We talked to her about our project and the ferry issues and she was more than happy to open up the doors of the Quilters Collective for us. Camping the night in Gee’s Bend was no longer needed (and for that Coty and I owe Nancy a lot!). It turned out that all of those cars had met there to go to a funeral in a group bus, so that would have been a dead end.
This paragraph is essentially a side note, but an interesting and important one. The name Pettway didn’t mean anything to me before coming to the Quilters Collective, but then I started to notice that almost every picture on the wall was of a Pettway, and that most of the quilts were made by Pettways as well. With some research I found out that the plantation at Gee’s Bend was given to Mark Pettway in 1845 to settle a $29,000 debt, and that Mark brought 100 slaves with him when he moved there from North Carolina. Nancy and the rest of the Pettways are all descendants of these slaves and still live in the area. For an idea, see the list of the Gee’s Bend quilters — 18 out of 40 on the Quilters’ website are Pettways.
Nancy told me that she has been quilting since she was a young girl. Though most of the Gee’s Bend quilters (and quilters in general, she told me) learn from their mothers, Nancy is self-taught. In fact, Nancy did not grow up in Gee’s Bend, but moved there to pursue quilting as an occupation. Quilts come in all sizes, from as small as 12” by 12” to ones that cover a king size bed. Smaller quilts take about 2-3 days to make, while the larger quilts can take an entire month or longer to complete. Nancy’s largest have been queen size, which requires an incredible time commitment to a single piece of art, especially when that same art is your livelihood. There is an incredible variety to the materials used for the top of the quilt. Traditionally, the quilts were made with whatever was available — cloth sacks, old work shirts, etc. Many of these can still be seen in a lot of the quilts, often alongside new, modern fabrics. Someone had already made a quilt commemorating Auburn’s national championship, some three days after it had happened. I fell in love with a queen size one whose top was made with intersecting patterns of soft flannel. If I had $7500, I’d probably be laying in my bed underneath it right now (and so would my children and grandchildren — these quilts are built to last as heirlooms). The variety of materials and the use of truly innovative and modern patterning make these quilts stand out as some of the best art that I have ever seen in person. These are truly American cultural treasures, and you won’t find anything like them anywhere else in the world.
Luckily, the practice continues to be passed on, and is even expanding to parts of the community that didn’t historically take part in it. I asked Nancy if any men made quilts and she said that while it was indeed rare, 12 year old Trey Pettway showed excellent promise in the quilts that he had already made.