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Soulful Stitches

For four generations, African American women living in a swampy, faraway patch of Alabama have stitched together colorful quilts. They have been passing the time and helping their loved ones keep warm.

Most of the Gee's Bend women are descended from enslaved people. These women never realized that their labors of love would one day be admired as valuable works of art.

The work of 46 quilt makers from Gee's Bend was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The exhibition includes old photographs of Gee's Bend and a 20-minute historical film.

“The Quilts of Gee's Bend,” however, is more than just a display of bedcovers made from the 1920s to the 1990s. The collection of 60 quilts is also a look into a period of history when many African Americans in the deep South still picked cotton to survive. Many of the town's residents dealt with racial discrimination and poverty.

Haunting Memories

Mary Lee Bendolph is one of the Gee's Bend quilters. She said she had little choice but to learn quilting as a young girl growing up poor. “We had no TV, no radio, no nothing,” she said. “That's the way we learned, sitting, watching our mamas piecing the quilt.”

Arlonzia Pettway is another quilter. When she was a little girl, she sat with her siblings and baby cousins on her great-grandmother's quilt. The young girls would listen closely to grandmama Dinah Miller's stories of slave ships and cruel slave masters.

“I'd wake up at night and think of the stories she told,” Pettway said. “I didn't forget them.”

Storytelling with Cloth

To tell their stories, the women of Gee's Bend don't sew words on the quilts. Rather, they let each quilt speak for itself through the colorful fabric and the stitching that makes each quilt different.

Made for practical use in homes, the quilts were often created from the fabrics of daily life. Those fabrics included discarded work clothes, cornmeal sacks, old handkerchiefs, rags, and strips of cotton bedsheets.

In most cases, a quilt's design resulted from the shape of the torn fabric, which might have been recycled from old pants legs, worn dresses, or window curtains.

Loretta Pettway is known for making quilts from torn and shredded scraps of denim and other materials.

“I didn't have a good scissor,” she said. “I mostly had to rip [the fabric pieces] loose. I just fit them the way they were cut.”

She created her artwork while raising seven children. “I never had no time for myself,” Loretta Pettway said.

History of Gee's Bend

Gee's Bend is tucked away into a five- by seven-mile oxbow, or U-shaped bend, of the Alabama River. No bridge or ferry crosses the river. That leaves Gee's Bend and its population of 750 people cut off, miles from the nearest town.

“What makes Gee's Bend distinct is the freedom with which the women approach their art,” said John Beardsley, an art expert.

The land on which Gee's Bend sits was once a cotton plantation. In 1845, Mark Pettway bought the property from the family of Joseph Gee. Pettway then moved his family and more than 100 enslaved African Americans from North Carolina to Gee's Bend.

Many current Gee's Benders are the great-grandchildren of the Pettway plantation enslaved people and bear the family name.

Today, quilting is a dying art in Gee's Bend. Only a few quilters regularly keep at it. That is a far cry from a half-century ago, said Early Pettway. “Way back yonder,” he said, “everybody here but the men quilted.”