Quilts are its trademark, but the legacy of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, will be its food, culture and way of life.
by Shermika Dunner and Erin Z. Bass
(Scroll down for video of the women of Gee’s Bend singing while they work.)
In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, presented an exhibition of 70 quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The story goes that art collector William Arnett came across a photograph of one of the quilts while working on a history of African American vernacular art. He set out to find the quilt, and its maker, and arrived in Gee’s Bend.
His discovery led to the “Quilts of Gee’s Bend” exhibition, which traveled the country from Houston to New York, Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco. The quilts and their quilters became famous almost overnight. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelmann called them “eye-poppingly gorgeous.” The quilt Arnett first saw a photo of was made by Annie Mae Young and features a red and orange design in corduroy that’s suggestive of prison bars. Faded denim surrounds it.
Created by 42 women, the quilts in that first exhibit spanned four generations, several patterns, including the popular “Housetop,” and every color imaginable. A year later, the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective was founded to help the women market their quilts. (Some sell for more than $20,000, with the most affordable ones priced around $1,000 and squares around $30.) After being featured on postage stamps in 2006 and in a second exhibition that year, the Gee’s Bend quilts became iconic symbols of American art.
Most people have at least heard of them, but not many have actually visited the source. Although they are world famous, the women of Gee’s Bend still hone and teach their craft at the collective, and their little woodframe houses dot the rural community. Anyone is welcome to visit, purchase a quilt and even sew a square or two, they just have to know how to find Gee’s Bend.
Surrounded on three sides by water and located in a bend of the Alabama River, Gee’s Bend is accessible by ferry and County Road 29 from Alberta. This area was founded by the Gee family in the early 1800s, and the land sold to Mark Pettway in 1845. After the Civil War, the freed slaves took the name Pettway and founded their own all-black, isolated community. Since then, Gee’s Bend has made headlines and fascinated outsiders.
In the mid-1960s, the Freedom Quilting Bee (middle picture above) was founded as an offshoot of the Civil Rights Movement to foster community development by selling crafts. At that time, residents also began taking the ferry across the river to Camden to try and register to vote. Ferry service was eliminated in 1962 to halt this effort, which lasted for 44 years. Lack of a ferry and an hour’s drive to Camden from the other side contributed to Gee’s Bend remaining isolated, and untouched, from the outside world.
Ferry service was restored in 2006 and a Quilt Mural Trail (pictured below) erected in 2008. Now, thanks to help from students at Auburn University, Gee’s Bend is set to undergo a large transformation that will encourage tourism and give visitors more things to do once they get there.
Third-year architecture students at Auburn presented ideas at Urban Studio in Birmingham last December on how to increase community tourism in Gee’s Bend. Urban Studio is an outreach program of Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction that allows fourth-year and thesis students to participate in community projects. Professor Sheri Schumacher of the university’s School of Architecture says the students’ architectural investigations provided design solutions for a Gee’s Bend Learning Center (pictured in the sketch below), which would include the study of quilting, visitor housing and community regeneration opportunities.
Students presented ideas on how to turn Gee’s Bend from an unknown locale into a tourist destination, and their presentation ignited further ideas on community-based tourism among local leaders.
“The Gee’s Bend project review is enormous,” says Burke Kennedy, Gee’s Bend resident and community leader. ”It has generated a lot of anticipation and expectation from community members, and we are thankful and grateful to have the resources and people working with us.”
Specific ideas focus on sustainable visitor housing, complete with a rainwater collection system, along with a community and education center. Old Roosevelt homes, which were built on plots of land the government bought to use as agricultural cooperatives, were proposed to be rebuilt for both residents and tourists, and many designs use the site of the old Boykin School.
Students discussed bringing an arts center into the Gee’s Bend area and having a quilt exhibition as the primary focus. Quilts could be displayed, while also reinvigorating the economy with a retail shop selling quilting supplies and souvenirs, café and quilting workshop classes.
“My personal favorites, among all the good ideas presented, were the ones involving agriculture and food production,” says Jim Emerson, a Camden/Wilcox County community leader. “I can envision a community-based business with ‘Gee’s Bend’ branded natural foods, a community market and kitchen or restaurant.”
Since the December presentation, Keshia’s Snack Shack, located a short distance from the quilt collective, has opened in Gee’s Bend. Offering salads and sandwiches, the restaurant is the only one in the area, adding to new amenities for potential visitors. Another focus is on festivals and events, like the “Gee’s Bend Play,” spearheaded by Tanna Pettway and based on the true story of the women of Gee’s Bend and their quilts. Performed at least once a year (and across the country by theater groups), local performances of the play star an all-local cast, several of them Pettways. Click here to see a video clip from the play performed at the Cincinnati Playhouse last year.
Additional tourism activities could include paddling the Alabama scenic river trail, fly-fishing tournaments and biking. The community’s annual May Day Celebration, sponsored by the league, is currently its biggest draw. Scheduled for May 5, the festival will include quilting of course, along with other crafts, food items, a parade, music and traditional maypole dance.
Euneika Rogers-Sipp with Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprise for Families says projects like these allow residents of Gee’s Bend to take an active part in tourism. Funded in part by a $300,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, this type of community- based tourism can result in longterm resources and learning opportunities, in addition to improving the livelihoods of small businesses and tourism entrepreneurs in rural communities in the Black Belt, adds Rogers-Sipp.
Auburn’s Schumacher has already conducted a two-day pilot quilting workshop with the collective quilters that included home stays and catered meals for 11 participants. Another workshop was held last month, and coming this fall, a new group of Urban Studio students will again work on the vision for Gee’s Bend and begin implementing some of the first group’s ideas.
The possibilities are endless for Gee’s Bend. While it may be a few more years before tourists can rent a room, purchase an official food product or quilting supplies in the gift shop, a slice of history is waiting to be witnessed now. We suggest making the trek for May Day, then going back in a few years and seeing the fruits of the community’s labor.
Gee’s Bend is located about an hour and a half from Montgomery, two and a half hours from Birmingham and four hours from Atlanta. The quickest way to get there is by ferry from Camden. The Gee’s Bend Ferry runs seven days a week from 6:15 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Prices range from $1-$10 depending on vehicle type.
Where to Stay
Currently, there are no hotels on Gee’s Bend. Roland Cooper State Park is the closest place to stay and does have six, two-bedroom cabins, ranging from $72-$82 a night. To schedule a home stay with a quilter, call Linda Vice at 334-715-9653. Camden has the Southern Inn Motel & Restaurant and American Inn, while Selma, less than an hour away, offers the historic St. James Hotel.
What to Do
See the quilters at their craft, purchase a quilt and maybe even sit in on a square. Quilting by local women can be seen daily from 9:30-11:30 a.m. at the new Gee’s Bend Ferry Terminal and Welcome Center. Women of the Quilters Collective can also be found quilting there through lunch most days. The Quilt Mural Trail begins at the Freedom Quilting Bee and continues into Gee’s Gend, marking quilters’ homes, the old school and the ferry terminal.
Gee’s Bend quilters now offer quilting lessons for groups at the Quilters Collective. Lesson packages include locally prepared meals, home stays and lessons from the quilters. Contact Mary Ann Pettway at 334-573-2585 (home), 334-453-0687 (cell) or 334-573-2525 (collective) to schedule.
Black Belt Treasures (pictured below), a nonprofit retail gallery featuring artwork, sculpture, pottery, woodwork, baskets, jewelry, books and quilts from Gee’s Bend is located in Camden and a great spot to pick up a souvenir or gift.
Where to Eat
Keisha’s is the only restaurant on Gee’s Bend, serving sandwiches, salads and chicken fingers. Miss Kitty’s in Camden serves a soul food lunch, and GainesRidge Dinner Club, named one of “100 Places to Eat in Alabama Before You Die,” is known for its seafood, steak and black bottom pie. The Pancake House in Selma is a 70-year-old landmark for breakfast, while Tally-Ho restaurant there is famous for its resident ghost, Betty.
Gee’s Bend’s annual May Day Festival will take place the first Saturday in May.
Nashville’s Frist Center presents Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial, including 20 quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend, May 25-September 23.
The Gee’s Bend Play is scheduled to be performed again in September. We’ll announce dates as soon as they’re confirmed.
Special thanks to Linda Vice with Rural Southwest Alabama Tourism for hosted visits to Gee’s Bend, Sheri Schumacher with Auburn School of Architecture for the Urban Studio presentation invitation and information; and to the women of Gee’s Bend for allowing us to photograph and video their beautiful singing voices.
Photo credits, from top: Quilt Mural Trail courtesy of Rural SW Alabama; hanging quilts by Deep South; ferry, Freedom Quilting Bee, Quilters Collective and Quilt Mural courtesy of Rural SW Alabama; learning center sketch courtesy of Sheri Schumacher, Auburn College of Architecture; women quilting, quilts outside and Welcome to Gees Bend by Deep South; and Black Belt Treasures courtesy of Rural SW Alabama.
Update: We received an email from Euneika Rogers-Sipp with Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprise for Families asking us to let readers know that the idea of community-based tourism was introduced to Gee’s Bend in 2010 and that the community has been active in tourism efforts since then. Some of these early efforts included the development of homestays and identification of community members for hospitality and management training.