Lola Pettway, "Housetop" variation, 1970s. Courtesy of Tinwood Alliance.
Loretta Bennett, Work-clothes strips, 2003. Courtesy of Tinwood Alliance.
Louisiana Bendolph, "Housetop" medallion, 2003. Courtesy of Tinwood Alliance.
Gee's Bend: More about Gee's Bend
Gee's Bend is a small rural community nestled into a curve in the Alabama River southwest of Selma, Alabama. Founded in antebellum times, it was the site of cotton plantations, primarily the lands of Joseph Gee and his relative Mark Pettway. After the Civil War, the freed slaves took the name Pettway, became tenant farmers and founded an all-black community nearly isolated from the surrounding world.
The town's women developed a distinctive, bold, and sophisticated quilting style based on traditional American and African-American quilts, but with a geometric simplicity reminiscent of Amish quilts and modern art.
In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presented an exhibition of seventy quilts from the Bend. The Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibition received tremendous international acclaim, traveling to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and then later touring the U.S.
The New York Times called the quilts "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."
Playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder first saw the quilts at the Whitney and was immediately inspired by the women who hailed from the South. "I knew there was a bigger story to be told," she said. Elyzabeth traveled to Gee's Bend for the first time in December 2004 and was embraced by the quilters. In two years she created the play, heeding the advice of quilter Mary Lee Bendolph to "just write it honest."
Awarded the 2008 Osborn New Play Award by the American Theatre Critics Association, Gee's Bend is based on the true stories of the unique women whose faith and craft transformed suffering into beauty and meaning. The characters in the play are fictional but are based on collective stories, family history and the women's memories.
The women of Gee's Bend were affected by the legacy of slavery, the Depression, and the Civil Rights movement. Mary Lee Bendolph tells her story of Martin Luther King's visit to the neighboring town of Camden:
"And when he [King] went to Camden, I had to beg my husband to let me go – but I went. I was in the group with Martin Luther King when he went up to drink the "white" water [at a whites-only water fountain]. When I finally did get to drink that white water, it wasn't no different!"
Martin Luther King Jr. visited and spoke in Gee's Bend in 1965. A few days later, Gee's Bend quilter Nettie Young and many of her friends took off their aprons, laid down their hoes, and rode over to the county seat of Camden, where they gathered outside the old jailhouse.
"We were waiting for Martin Luther King, and when he drove up, we were all slappin' and singin', we were all just happy to see him coming," she said. "Then he stood out there on the ground, and he was talking about how we should wait on a bus to come and we were all going to march. We got loaded on the bus, but we didn't get a chance to do it, 'cause we got put in jail," Young said.
Many who marched or registered to vote in rural Alabama in the 1960s lost their jobs. Some even lost their homes. And the residents lost the ferry connecting them to Camden – a direct route to the outside world.
When King was assassinated in 1968, mules from Gee's Bend pulled his casket.