The residents of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, are direct descendants of the enslaved people who worked the cotton plantation established in 1816 by Joseph Gee. After the Civil War, their ancestors remained on the plantation working as sharecroppers. In the 1930s, the price of cotton fell, and the community faced ruin. As part of its Depression-era intervention, the Federal Government purchased ten thousand acres of the former plantation and provided loans enabling residents to acquire and farm the land formerly worked by their ancestors. Unlike the residents of other tenant communities, who could be forced by economic circumstances to move—or who were sometimes evicted in retaliation for their efforts to achieve civil rights—the people of the Bend could retain their land and homes. Cultural traditions like quiltmaking were nourished by these continuities.
Most Gee’s Bend residents accordingly did not participate in The Great Migration, during which over six million African Americans from the rural South journeyed to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West from about 1916 to 1970. By remaining in Alabama, most were not afforded the opportunity to become participants in the burgeoning American middle class, the wellspring of opportunity for many of the artists today recognized in the global art market.
In the 1960s, spurred on by Martin Luther King Jr’s visit, community members became active in the Civil Rights Movement, ferrying to the county seat at Camden to register to vote. Authorities reacted by eliminating ferry service altogether, effectively isolating the community and cutting it off from basic services. During this period, local women came together to found the Freedom Quilting Bee, a workers cooperative that provided much-needed economic opportunity and political empowerment.
Throughout this time, and up until the present, the settlement’s unique patchwork quilting tradition that began in the 19th century has endured. Hailed by the New York Times as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced,” Gee’s Bend quilts constitute a crucial chapter in the history of American art and today are in the permanent collections of over 30 leading art museums.