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American Treasures: Quilts of Gee's Bend

  • Erika Celeste

There's a tiny community in the southern state of Alabama that is so remote that it would seem untouched by the outside world. Yet the opposite is true. At every turn, it has found itself woven into the fabric of American culture. The thread that binds Gee's Bend to the outside world begins with quilts.

Quilting is as much a part of Gee's Bend as the Alabama River that cradles the peninsula on which it sits. So it was only natural that at 12 years old, Mary Lee Bendolph asked her mama to teach her how to make quilts. "I loved to see her piece quilt and I wanted to be just like her because she was a sweet lady," she explains. "My mama would sit down and piece quilt and sometimes she'd be singing and praying, and I just loved that. She'd always sing this song about the days is past and gone." Bendolph sings the song when she quilts today.

Gee's Bend was founded by freed slaves in the late 1860's, after the American Civil War. The women of this tiny, all-black community developed a unique style of quilt making born of necessity and cultural art. Photographs of the community, commissioned by the federal government during the economic Depression of the 1930's, brought Gee's Bend national attention, but not prosperity.

Bendolph recalls that being isolated and poor began to change in the 1960's. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior paid a visit to Gee's Bend before leading the famous 1965 march through nearly Selma, Alabama. The brightly colored, oddly patched quilts airing in the women's yards, caught King's attention, reminding him of modern art. "They didn't know, they were just coming down here to see and help us, they didn't know they would find artwork, but they found it," Bendolph says.

King was so impressed with the quilts that he became a champion of the women's work, raising funds to help them build a gathering place to work. When he was assassinated in 1968, mules from the Bend pulled his casket. And within months of his death, civil rights activists donated a building and nine hectares of land to the Gee's Bend Quilters. Bendolph remembers telling them that they may have thought they were acting on their own, "but the Lord sent them on down here."

Soon the Quilting Bee became a business, employing a quarter of the community, supporting a day care and supplying quilts to such national retail giants as Sears and Bloomingdales. Individually, the women would design and sew their own patterns, then gather together in their Community Center to hand-stitch the top pattern, cotton stuffing and backing into quilts. Mary Lee Bendolph designed over 1000 quilts and named each design. One paid tribute to her mother's song: The Days Have Passed and Gone.

The money the quilts brought in improved the standard of living for the quilters and the community. "They get some things like a car," Bendolph says, adding, "I got me a freezerator, you know, buying things I needed that before I couldn't get. I didn't have no money to get it, now I can get some things like that."

The Quilter's reputation spread further in 1996, when the U.S. Postal Service honored the women with a series of stamps called 'American Treasures,' featuring ten of their quilt designs. Bendolph says seeing the stamps was a proud moment. "It lifted my spirit because you have to be dead for so many years before you can get something like that. So it was a pleasure for me, and I wasn't dead. I said 'thank the Lord that I ain't dead!' I can see some of the work." The Postal Service will not put someone's image on a stamp until they've been dead at least five years.

A museum exhibition of the quilts soon followed, touring 12 American cities with such prestigious stops as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Tourists began flocking to Gee's Bend to visit with the women and purchase their quilts, which were selling for $2,500 to $7,000.

While the original Quilters are still the core of the Gee's Bend Collective, a new generation of quilters, like Elma Pettway, is beginning to learn the art and carry on the tradition. "My mom and grandma was my inspiration," she says. "They always said to try to do something that would make your family proud and that's what I've been trying to do, so some day I hope some of my children will pick up on it."

With an eye towards the future and increasing tourism, Pettway and her husband are building the Bend's first restaurant, a sandwich shop. And other improvements are underway: next month the Quilter's Community Center undergoes repairs and gets a new roof.

Mary Lee Bendolph says when you think about it, quilts can change your life. For her, they offered employment to better her family, a chance to travel the country, and a place in history. For the rest of us, wrapping up in a quilt on a cold night is a little like having the arms of our ancestors embrace us once again.

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