The Quilts of Gee’s Bend Speak Eloquently of Lives Lived

Located southwest of Selma, Alabama, on a big bend in the meandering Alabama River, Gee’s Bend, which was officially named Boykin in 1949, is a community made up primarily of African Americans descended from slaves. The first slaves were brought to this pocket of bottomland in the early 1800s, when North Carolina planter Joseph Gee established a cotton plantation in the area. His relative, Mark H. Pettway, brought more slaves after indebted members of the Gee family deeded the estate to him in 1845.

For generations geography has isolated “Benders,” as the residents of Gee’s Bend are also known. Water surrounds the community on three sides, and by land only one long strip of roadway (which was not paved until 1967) leads in from the northwest. The ferry that once connected Gee’s Bend with Camden, Alabama, stopped running during the 1960s. Decades of separation have made it difficult for the residents of Gee’s Bend to escape poverty, but isolation has also brought a priceless gift: the uninterrupted transmission of the quilting tradition.

Noted for their unexpected color combinations, bold patterns, and improvised designs, the quilts of Gee’s Bend are also remarkable for the humble materials with which they are made and the humbler circumstances in which they are born. Until recently, necessity limited the quilters to fabric from everyday items such as flour sacks, old dresses, and worn-out denim and flannel work clothes. Stains, mended holes and tears, faded patches, and seams all became integral parts of a quilt’s design and ensured that the materials, as well as the quilts, told the story of Gee’s Bend.

Created for the practical purpose of keeping warm, the quilts also demonstrate how greatly ingenuity and improvisation are prized in Gee’s Bend. Having learned from their mothers, grandmothers, and other female relations the fundamental motifs and techniques for stitching pieces together, each quilter is then expected to find her own manner of expression. As a result, seemingly infinite variations have made the quilts sources of both pride and friendly competition.

Today outside interest in the quilts of Gee’s Bend is growing. Art historian William Arnett and his son Matt began collecting the quilts in 1997. Their collection, which has been exhibited in museums around the U.S., resides with Tinwood Alliance, a nonprofit foundation in Atlanta, Georgia, that supports African-American vernacular art. The renewed attention has had a positive social and economic impact on the lives of the quilters and other residents of Gee’s Bend. In 2003 the women of Gee’s Bend, with the help of Tinwood Alliance, formed the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend stamps were issued in 2006 as part of the American Treasures Series. They are no longer available, but you can still add this gorgeous print to your collection. It features “Housetop” variation (1998) by Mary Lee Bendolph, quilted in 2001 by her daughter, Essie Bendolph Pettway.