There’s only one road to get into and out of Gee’s Bend. It’s paved, but the dirt driveways and footworn paths that peel off of it reveal earth the color of Cheeto dust. I found Mary Ann Pettway, 62, at the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. Just off the road, it’s a one-story, two-room, peeled-paint wooden structure that once housed a daycare. Though we’d never previously met, Pettway — tall, broad, and short a few bottom teeth — enveloped me in a hug. Pettway has been the manager of the Collective since 2006, a year after she joined it.
Despite their modest headquarters, the quilts made by Mary Ann and her neighbors have been called “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced”; they rose to public prominence in the early aughts thanks to a series of museum shows. But exploitation by white art dealers who brought about the renewed interest is only the latest injustice the quiltmakers have faced. With a dwindling population, the quilting tradition that first emerged among slaves and has been passed down through generations of black women faces an uncertain future.
One room of the Collective was almost entirely filled with quilts. They were heaped on shelves, spread on tables, and hanging on the wall. Some of them were improvisational and abstract, while others followed patterns that became inverted or subverted. There were neatly color-blocked quilts and those that seemed inspired by ’70s psychedelia. The quilts were made from old dresses and work clothes, simple colored cottons, patterned sheets, corduroy, or denim, basically any sort of fabric that could be used.
Tables, chairs, a sewing machine, and a quilting frame with a quilt Mary Ann was working on took up the other room. Her latest quilt featured geometric shapes in red, white, and black, plus a bit of chartreuse and the seat of a pair of old jeans, minus the pocket.
Growing up, Mary Ann said, the boys in her family learned to plow and farm, and the girls learned to quilt, clean, and can. After she graduated high school, Mary Ann moved to Mobile, but a few years later she got pregnant and returned to the Bend.
She worked at a sewing factory in Selma for 20 years, then another sewing factory that subsequently closed, then a nearby hardware store; that closed, too. She was feeling depressed and aimless. “I asked God [for] a job working at home,” she said, and the managing position came soon after. “This quilting can [technically] be done in the house, but then see, when you ask God for stuff you gotta be careful how you ask Him. You gotta just [ask] precisely.”
Gee’s Bend — 45 miles southwest of Selma, population 275, and pronounced like the letter — was renamed Boykin in 1949, but most residents still call the hamlet by its original name, which dates to the 19th century. With the signing of the 1814 Treaty of Fort Jackson, the native Creeks were forced to cede 23 million acres of their territory (comprised of what’s now southern Georgia and central Alabama) to the federal government. White settlers began to purchase plots in the Black Belt region, a name that refers to the dark, fertile topsoil of the area. In 1816, Joseph Gee bought a 15-mile stretch of land surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. He arrived with 17 slaves to establish a cotton plantation. Three years later, Alabama became the 22nd state in the union.
In 1845, Gee’s heirs sold the area now known as Gee’s Bend to Mark Pettway, a white landowner who moved from North Carolina with 100 slaves he forced to walk across four states. Today, Gee’s Bend is still populated by Pettways, but they’re not white. They trace their ancestry to the slaves Mark Pettway brought from North Carolina or those that Gee purchased.
In 1859, a woman named Dinah Miller was kidnapped somewhere in Africa and taken to America, 51 years after the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was passed by Congress. She has been identified as the Ben’s first quilter. “My great-grandmother Dinah was sold for a dime,” Arlonzia Pettway told Smithsonian Magazine in 2006. “Her dad, brother, and mother were sold to different people, and she didn’t see them no more.”
Mark Pettway died in 1861, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Over the following five decades, his property changed hands multiple times. Former slaves, working as sharecroppers, stayed. In unheated log cabins, women pieced together fabric scraps for quilts, which were layered on the floor as makeshift beds and hung on the walls to keep drafts out.
Gee’s Bend sharecroppers became indebted to white merchants in nearby Camden when the price of cotton plummeted in the late 1920s. Over the next decade many families came close to starvation. The absentee landlord, Adrian Sebastian Van de Graaff, eventually sold Gee’s Bend to the government; amid the New Deal programs, a cooperative pilot project run by a federal agency was set up there. Residents paid annual dues to the cooperative and shared the federally funded, newly built resources, which included a cotton gin, a general store, and a school whose initial class of first graders ranged in age from six to 22.
The government built simple houses and rented tracts of land to residents, eventually selling small farms to locals for a third of the purchase price from a decade earlier. Though they still lived in poverty, black ownership of land was extremely rare, so Gee’s Benders who might have otherwise left stayed on.
“I came through a hard life,” Arlonzia, then 83, told Smithsonian. “Maybe we weren’t bought and sold, but we were still slaves until 20, 30 years ago. The white man would go to everybody’s field and say, ‘Why you not at work?’ What do you think a slave is?”
Meanwhile, racial terror and white supremacy maintained a stranglehold on the area. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) found record of four lynchings in Wilcox County during Reconstruction; all four occurred between 1893 and 1904. (The EJI’s parameters for inclusion — a lynching carried out by two or more white Americans between 1877 and 1950 that was confirmable with at least two sources — suggests there may be more unaccounted-for lynchings.)
“There are still lynchings in this county,” a Harvard student who spent a summer teaching college-bound black high school students wrote for the university’s newspaper in 1970. “Within the past two years, a black man has been castrated, a white woman has shot a black male child, and a white doctor who is a member of the KKK has plotted to have the county’s black [federally funded, anti-poverty program] director assassinated.”
Mary Lee Bendolph, 83, is probably one of the most famous quilters to come out of Gee’s Bend. She’s got a scratchy voice and a cackling laugh; she’s prone to cracking herself up. She got pregnant at 13 and at 20 married her sons’ father, who abused her. In 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. stopped in Gee’s Bend on his way to Montgomery, Mary Lee and her husband went to the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church to hear him speak.
“To come here to Gee’s Bend and to see you out in large numbers gives me new courage and new determination,” King. Jr said to the packed church, ignoring his security staff warnings about his safety in a county run by Sheriff P.C. “Lummie” Jenkins. It was three weeks before Bloody Sunday, when 600 nonviolent, unarmed protesters marching for civil rights were severely beaten and tear gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. King Jr. told the residents of Gee’s Bend, “I come over here to Gee’s Bend to tell you: You are somebody.”
Despite local efforts, not a single black person had successfully registered to vote in Wilcox County. Due to a strong KKK presence, segregationist and white-supremacist officials in office, and an array of voting taxes and literacy tests meant to make it not just intimidating, but effectively impossible. King urged residents to join him in Camden to march for voting rights. An old creaky ferry was the fastest way to get there and Benders lined up to cross the river. Others joined him on his march from Selma to Montgomery. Mary Lee recalled running through the fields to ask her husband for permission to go to Selma to hear King speak again. She told me:
When he got through talking, he said he goin’ and he gonna get some water [from the whites only fountain] and I jumped up and said, ‘I’m gonna get some water too.’ Girl, there ain’t nothin for people to have anger about, but you know they was angry! They didn’t want you to drink their water. My sister didn’t want to let me go. She caught on me and hold me. And I turn my head and said, ‘You welcome to my coat, but I’m drinking that water.’ Martin Luther came and drunk that water and I did too.
In retaliation for their organizing for voting rights, the local, white officials took away the ferry that connected Gee’s Bend to Camden at a time when few Benders had cars. “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black,” Sheriff Jenkins reportedly said at the time. “We closed it because they forgot they were black.” But the residents of Gee’s Bend were undeterred. Arlonzia later explained, “[W]e kept right on marching. Only difference was we had to load up in trucks and drive all the way around.”
When I arrived, the Ferry to Gee’s Bend was closed. “PLEASE PARDON OUR PROGRESS!” A sign reads. “THE FERRY IS CLOSED WHILE IT IS CONVERTED TO AMERICA’S FIRST 100% ELECTRIC FERRY VESSEL!” After the local white officials took it away in the ‘60s, it wasn’t until 2006 that a ferry was reinstated between Gee’s Bend and Camden, 40 miles by car, but just seven by water. Now, it’s often used by tourists visiting Gee’s Bend to see the quilts and their makers.
The quilters were abuzz with news when I visited. Amy Sherald, the artist commissioned to paint a portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery in 2017, would arrive in the morning. Mostly, they referred to her as “The Famous Artist.”
On the day of her visit, old-time quilters showed up at the Collective in groups of two or three and sat around, chatting with one another. Sherald’s extended family was there, too. “They really need some better signage on those roads,” one family member said to me. “We got completely lost!”
Back in 1996, a white man named William “Bill” Arnett found his way to Gee’s Bend after seeing a photograph of a local resident with a quilt she’d made in a book on Southern folk art. He offered to buy her quilts and asked her to introduce him to other quiltmakers. China Pettway, 66, remembered the day well:
She called her cousin Arlonzia and told her that a man was up there buying quilts and when [Arnett] called Arlonzia, she called my mother and my mother called me, and oh boy, I just felt like...we’re not used to having nothing, you know and things like that just....a new life just opened up for me.
China told me she’s always been guided by the words of advice her fifth-grade teacher gave her: “She said, ‘When the opportunity itches, scratch it.’ Ever since that day, she’s dead and gone, I’ve been trying to scratch it. When something comes up, that will help me, grab it, get it, make some use out of it, you know?”
She said she sold Arnett three quilts, first offering to give them to him, but accepting what she considered to be a fair price when he insisted on paying. She said she can no longer remember how much he paid her for them, but that it was enough to put gas in the tank and buy her kids some new clothes. Arnett spent years buying up around 530 quilts from the area; he has said the average price he paid was $275 per quilt. Quilters have since said they were paid around $100 for quilts, and some quilts sold for as low as $40. (Through a representative, Arnett declined an interview request from The Outline.)
In 2002, when Arnett learned that the Museum of Fine Arts Houston had a last-minute show cancellation, he convinced them to showcase the quilts. The quilts received rave reviews and the exhibition traveled the country. “It is rare to find an exhibition that throws something totally unexpected our way, that forces us to carve out a meaningful chunk of historical space to make room for a new body of work,” the critic Richard Kalina wrote in Art in America, before conceding that the Gee’s Bend show “does just that.”
The exhibition was a surprise hit, breaking attendance records upon reaching the Whitney Museum in late 2002. One of those visitors in attendance was Sherald. “When I saw their show at the Whitney years ago, everybody went home and wanted to be a quilter,” she said. “I was like, ‘ooh, I’m gonna make a blue-jean quilt’...that didn’t happen.”
Ebullient in her signature cat-eye glasses, Sherald stood a head taller than everyone else in the room. “Visiting Gee’s Bend is something I wanted to do within this lifetime,” she told me. “It’s a dream come true.” Her boyfriend had organized the trip as a birthday surprise for her; he told me he paid the airline attendants $20 to change the sign so that Sherald would only find out where she was going once aboard the plane. The quilters stood and sung hymnals for her. She signed photographs, doled out and received hugs, then posed for dozens of photographs. Mary Ann cut herself a slice of the otherwise untouched cake.
Later, away from the crowd, Sherald told me how the town’s influence permeated her work. “When I was working with Michelle’s [Obama] stylist, we were discussing different options, and when I saw that [Milly] dress I instantly thought of Gee’s Bend,” she said. “For me, it was a way to connect that painting to black history. Those shapes have that meaning for me. I don’t connect them to European art or anything like that… those shapes come from my Southern culture, quilt making, underground railroad maps, those kinds of things.”
In the years after the quilts became a national sensation, Arnett and his practices came under scrutiny. In 2007, he was sued by three Gee’s Bend women who alleged that they weren’t properly compensated for their art which, by that point, was being reproduced via licensing deals with Anthropologie and Kathy Ireland Worldwide and appearing on U.S. postage stamps, VISA gift cards, and pet-proof rugs. One quilter said she was tricked into signing a copyright document even though she couldn’t read. Another said three quilts stolen from her were more than 100 years old. After the lawsuit was filed, the Arnetts returnedthe three quilts with an appraisal suggesting they were made between the ‘30s and the ‘60s. The suits were settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
At the time, most quilters said they were happy with the deals they’d struck with the Arnetts, but a number of institutional figures expressed alarm. In 2013, Susan Krane, a museum curator who’d met Arnett decades before, explained her issues with his business practices to the New Yorker. “Curator, gallerist, advocate, promoter, patron — those are all categories that, in the art world, we try to keep barriers between,” she said. “My concerns were how he functioned as a patron with artists who were, by and large, poor… Bill was creating art history around these artists while functioning as a dealer and promoting exhibitions. If you’re a museum person, it raised every red flag you’re taught to pay attention to.”
In recent years, Arnett’s narrative of discovery (“at the end of a dead-end road to nowhere,” was how he described Gee’s Bend to The Washington Post in 2004) and his framing of the quilters and their quilts has been criticized in smaller news outlets and academic texts. In My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art From The American South, the companion book to the Met exhibition of pieces from the collection that bears his name, the textile historian Amelia Peck called some of his opinions regarding the quilts “paternalistic and suspect.” Meanwhile, Arnett has somewhat incoherently compared his difficulties in the art world to that of Holocaust survivors.
Peck also questioned the larger art world’s positioning of the quilts in relation to abstract artworks. She cites The New York Times rave review of the Whitney show quoted at the beginning of this article, in which art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote, “Imagine [Henri] Matisse and [Paul] Klee… arising not from rarefied Europe but from the caramel soil of the rural South in the form of women, descendants of slaves when Gee’s Bend was a plantation.”
That kind of review and also the way the museums themselves have presented exhibits of these quilts became, as Peck writes, “something like a party trick — that is, ‘Isn’t it amazing that these untutored rural women were able to make something almost as good as our favorite paintings of the late twentieth century?’” Their value, then, comes when they are de-gendered, transitioning from feminine craft to masculine art, and deracinated, or, more specifically, when the race and geographic origin of the creators serves only to suggest how unlikely it is that they’d create such pieces.
While it is isolated, Gee’s Bend has long been subject to interest and attention from white people, which seems to ebb and flow every few decades. In the ‘60s, Father Francis X. Walter, a white preacher involved in the civil rights movement, bought some quilts and sold them at a New York fundraiser to the likes of Ray Eames and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland to raise money for the Gee’s Bend community. Painter Lee Krasner visited Gee’s Bend in 1967 and bought three quilts for the home she shared with her husband, Jackson Pollock.
In 1969, Calvin Trillin wrote a spread for the New Yorker on the quilting collective Father Walter helped set up that same year in Wilcox County. Newly christened the Freedom Quilting Bee, the initial collective was reportedly the county’s first black-owned business.
Even if they didn’t see their quilts as high art, there was a sense of pride among the quilters that existed long before Arnett came along. Larine Pettway was 11 when she made her first quilt. “I was so, so proud of myself, that I had did it,” she told me. “[My mother] always told us, ‘The reason why I am showing you girls this because one day, you too are gonna have a family and y’all gonna have to do this to keep your family warm.’”
Larine still remembers when Arnett came through, but what upsets her is that the older generations weren’t alive to experience wider recognition. “I hate they didn't live to see that what they taught us and what they were doing back then was art,” she said. Many women I spoke to described the pure joy and disbelief they experienced in seeing their quilts hanging on the walls of museums.
But, even after seeing their quilts hanging in some of the country’s best museums, the term artist is not an easy one to adopt. “I don’t think of myself as an artist, I’m just making quilts,” China said. “I don’t call myself an artist; I’m just Plain Jane, Plain China.”
China is old enough to remember when women used to hang their quilts out on a clothesline for the whole community to come and admire. “They had a day for all of the community to get together and just look at quilts. We used to be so glad to see them coming. I would run out and say, ‘Mom, here they come!’ My mama would always have a quilt for them [as they] came down the road.”
Art world attention moved on, but in 2014, Wilcox County made the news as the poorest county in the nation, with Gee’s Bend noted as the poorest section of the county. The median household income in Gee’s Bend is $14,516, according to Census data. A local historian reported in the ‘80s the community was disappointed that interest in the quilts in the sixties hadn’t translated into sustainable change. “Ain’t nothing ever happened,” was what the residents said.
It sounds remarkably similar to the words of the quilters interviewed by The Washington Post in 2007, who said they were disappointed the publicity hadn’t translated into solid community improvements. “When the [tourists] come down here, they can witness the fact that we don't have decent roads,” one quilter said.
In 2013, Arnett told the New Yorker that he was broke. “I haven’t made 50 cents total net profit on all that I’ve done on black culture in the past 25 years,” he said.
Without speaking to Arnett or accessing his financial records, it’s impossible to determine how much he earned or spent. Still, he did sell quilts to museum collections for undisclosed sums that were certainly higher than what he’d paid for them and with his ownership of the intellectual property rights to the quilts that were licensed via major deals in the early aughts, it’s hard to imagine he didn’t even make a single dollar.
In 2010, after the lawsuits and ensuing negative publicity, Arnett founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which is “dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the contributions of artists from the African-American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted,” according to its website.
In 2014, the Foundation began a program to transfer most of its 1,100 works to the permanent collections of major American art museums. So far, 200 works by 75 different artists (quilters, painters, sculptors) have been acquired by a number of museums across the country.
Just past Plantation Way in Montgomery, Alabama is a subdivision of nearly identical single-story brick homes. Though they’re mostly surrounded by industrial supply shops, the streets are named for prettier things — “Valley Brook Lane,” “Sweet Meadow Drive” — and on one such street lives the Smith family. Quinnard Smith, 37, answered the door when I rang the bell, but it was his sons I was there to see. The baby, Christian, was awake in a playpen; Alex, 11, played games on a computer nearby, and Julian, 10, emerged shyly from his room. DeShuan, 16, was taking a post-school nap; after few shouts from his dad, he too materialized in the living room.
Julian rooted around for a plastic bag containing the scraps and half-finished pieces he had been working on lately. Usually, the quilting skills are passed down from mother to daughter, but that’s changing. Years ago, Mary Ann Pettway taught her daughter, Tabitha Pettway-Smith, but she had no interest in quilting, so Mary Ann moved on to the next generation. “I don’t have any granddaughters, so I’m just teaching my grandsons,” Mary Ann told me. “If the boys keep going, they’ll be better’n me.”
DeShuan, soft-spoken and a bit shy, leaned against the doorjamb while he talked to me, half in the room, half out of it. “It’s been a long time,” he said, when I asked him how many years he had been quilting. “I learned when I was maybe five or six years old.”
Mary Ann taught him during one of the family’s visits to the Bend, as they call it, but now he quilts mostly in his family’s Montgomery home, where he has a sewing machine in his room. “Mainly, it’s just me, sitting down, cutting up different patterns and putting them together,” he said. “I’ll put blue with green, or instead of green next to green, I’ll put white in the middle, to make it look different.”
The boys have already sold quilts and smaller patches through the Collective; they are allowed to since they are, by blood, half Pettway. When he is older, DeShuan hopes to be a professional baseball player, but still quilt on the side. It is Julian who wants to be a professional quilter. Right now he’s not even considering any other vocations.
Membership in the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective has dwindled significantly over the years due to illness and death. The estimates I heard suggest 15 or so women still make quilts, but they are getting on in age too. Mary Lee stopped quilting after she had a stroke 10 years ago. “You know the babies used to be born and they eyes were closed for three days,” she said. “Now they come into the world and they eyes open. They got more understanding than we had. They learn more things then we did.”
But that doesn’t mean they want to learn to quilt. Larine tried to teach her sons, but they were too busy chasing girls, she said. She’s hoping to teach her two grandchildren when they’re old enough to learn. Other quilters have tried to lure their own grandchildren with special Barbie fabrics, to mixed results. “I believe that it is a dying art,” Larine said. “But if we catch the kids now and try to instill that into them now, they will get it; if we don't, it's gonna be forgotten.”
In China’s double-wide mobile home, she picked up the tape recorder I had set by her side and used it as if she was conducting an orchestra to describe the changes she’s experienced during her lifetime. “I went to school barefoot in the winter time; I had one dress and my older sister had one dress. I would wear my dress one day and hers the next day. The children would be laughing, ‘oh, you got on each other’s dresses!’”
She was one of 11 children. “Sometimes four or five of us was in one bed and those quilts used to be so heavy we could hardly turn over but those quilts kept us so warm,” she said. China tried to teach her daughter, who did not like getting stuck with a needle. She said:
She sat back down on her bed and said, ‘Mom, this ain't for me. This gotta be for you.’ She didn't even finish [her first quilt], I had to finish for her. She said, ‘Mom, I'm going to college; I'm going to get an education and I'm going to work in an office.’
Like China’s daughter and son, many children of that generation have left Gee’s Bend, the children of those who stayed find themselves leaving too. “You know, there's nothing here in this community for them to do, and I want to see them get an education and a job,” China said. “ A lot of them get cars when they are 16 years old. When I was 18 years old I had never ridden in a car or truck, nothing.” She worked for decades as a home health aide and now makes enough from her quilting to get by. Quilting profits funded home improvements that she’s been thrilled with.
China got up to show me what she’s been working on, unfurling quilt after quilt from plastic garbage bags, including one with scraps from her late mother’s pink Easter dress sewn in. I asked her if she’s worried about the future of the Collective. “It’s gonna be around till the end of time,” she said. But not because it’ll last much longer, instead because the world itself is coming to an end. “Everything gonna be burning up but the word of God. The word of God gonna be still standing, but the collective, all these buildings, gonna be burning up.”
Still cheery, she began folding up the quilts she had taken out to show me. Some are finished, and she’ll bring those ones down to the Collective. Some are still half-done, and she’ll work on them until the world ends or the quilts are finished, whichever comes first.