1904 - 1974

Clementine Kennedy

Boykin, Alabama

The Parker family, of Gee's Bend's Sodom neighborhood, and the Kennedy family, of the Pettway settlement "over the creek," were photographed extensively by Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Wolcott for the Farm Security Administration. Clementine Parker Kennedy, a member of both clans, is described by her daughter Estelle Pope.

She was born Clementine Parker in 1904, the daughter of Mark and Alice Parker. After Alice died, he married Angelina. Mama was raised in the Sodom community. She married Boston Kennedy in 1925, and they moved into a project house over the creek in 1939. They were farmers, grew cotton to sell, and corn to feed the farm animals, and sweet potatoes, and they had a big garden. They kept chickens, hogs, and cattle. Daddy had a smokehouse, and when he slaughtered his hogs, he washed and salted them and put them in that smokehouse. Mama had fourteen children, and when she was between childbirths, she shared the farm work. Generally she worked in the fields from May to September. Then it was time to get the children ready for school and to make quilts.

She put together quilts from anything she could get her hands on: old clothes, fertilizer sacks, and pieces of cloth too small for anything useful. The batting, she made it from raw, ginned cotton. Spread it out, beaten it till it was soft and fluffy. They whipped the quilt into the frame and hung it from the living-room ceiling. She had three sisters and they all helped each other—Jennie, Cherokee, and Nell. When they finish a quilt at Clementine's, they would go to another sister's house and do the same kind of thing. The lady of the house would provide a simple lunch, and the children helped by threading needles or by fetching. My mother was a homemaker. She was a quiet, loving woman, and she loved to cook. When she was planning to cook a chicken, she always put it in a coop for a week before cooking it—"to clean it out," she'd say. One week, she made sure we get chicken and dumplings; the next week, beef. Corn bread and biscuits was her specialty. And you know, they never argued in front of us children. They have a problem, like a problem with the children, it was always discussed in private. My daddy was a strict man, kept the discipline, but he was a loving man who would go out of his way to care for a sick neighbor—sit with them or rubbing an ailing body to cure them.

This book and exhibition are part of a growing family of research projects about the African American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and its quilts. Surrounded on three sides by a river, Gee’s Bend developed a distinctive local culture and quilt design aesthetic. In 2002 the inaugural exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend documented these quiltmaking achievements. Expanding upon that initial exhibition and its accompanying publications, Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt offers a deeper look into the women and their art, and a more focused investigation into the nature and inspirations—and future—of the Gee’s Bend quilt tradition.

The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, black community in Alabama—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend tells the story of this town and its art.

Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair—quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants.

The Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend

This uplifting, Emmy-winning PBS film tells the modern-day "Cinderalla" story of the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Artists born into extreme poverty, they live to see their quilts hailed by a The New York Times art critic as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."