1949 - 2017

Mary Spencer

Alberta, Alabama

After testing life in the Northeast, Mary Spencer returned to her birthplace, Rehoboth, where her family owns the only currently operating business, Abrams Grocery.

I was Mary Abrams, born in Rehoboth. This is where I was born in 1949. My mother's name was Daisy Pettway and my father's name was Otis Abrams. The Abrams store was started by my brother Johnny and my brother Otis Abrams Jr. My parents were farmers, farmed cotton, corn, peas, okra, watermelon, cucumbers. As soon as I got big enough to do something in the field, I started in the field, and went on until I was about sixteen. Then I left home, and was glad to leave to get out of the field.

I went to New York and lived with my two sisters up there. I got a job and went to work in a coat factory. I wasn't sewing, but was more like a "floor girl." I came back home when I was twenty-two. I just wanted to come home. Then I met my husband, Roosevelt Spencer, met him and from then on it was me and him. But we didn't farm. He worked in the pulpwood business.

I made my first quilts when I was real young, still at home, about twelve or thirteen. My mother made quilts and that's how I learned. When I first started out I was just putting pieces together, but later on I worked up at the quilting bee and come to prefer patterns. I had a bunch of old quilts, but my husband burnt them up back a while ago. We was thinking they was good for nothing.

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.

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 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.

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."