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The Gee's Bend Quilts

About Gee's Bend

Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is a rural community of about 700 people, most of whom are African American, located on a fifteen-mile stretch of land nestled in a hairpin turn of the Alabama River. The area is named for Joseph Gee, who established a cotton plantation there in 1816. In 1845, Mark Pettway bought the estate, which encompassed thousands of acres of land and 101 enslaved people. Pettway also forced slaves from his North Carolina home to walk across four states to Alabama. Many residents of Gee’s Bend are descendants of these people, a large number of whom still bear Pettway’s last name.

After the American Civil War (1861–65), the majority of the freed slaves in Gee’s Bend became tenant farmers and remained in the area. During the Great Depression (1929–39), the price of cotton plummeted, causing economic strife in Gee’s Bend. It was identified as one of the poorest towns in the nation, prompting the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to establish a program to build new homes and offer residents low-interest mortgages. While many African American families in the South moved North in the ensuing years, these homeowners stayed.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visited Gee’s Bend in 1965 and encouraged citizens to register to vote and to join him in a march to Selma, Alabama. Many Gee’s Bend women were jailed for these actions. In additional retaliation, the ferry service that connected Gee’s Bend to the larger town of Camden was cancelled, cutting off access to services and supplies (this ferry service was restored in 2006). Still, the community endured, and when King was assassinated in 1968, two farmer mules from Gee’s Bend were chosen to pull his casket. For over a century, the people of Gee’s Bend have come together to overcome the struggles of poverty, isolation, and prejudice. Although Gee’s Bend remains geographically remote, it is recognized worldwide as a center of artistic production and a symbol of community perseverance and pride.

 

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