The Sunday porch: Gee’s Bend

Gee's Bend, Alabama, Library of Congress

This porch and its wonderful chairs were in Gees Bend [Boykin], Alabama,  in 1939. The photo was taken by Marion Post Wolcott,* and she captioned it:

Jorena Pettway and her daughter making [a] chair cover out of bleached flour sacks and flower decorations from paper. She also made the chairs and practically all the furniture in the house.

Gee’s Bend is an African-American community located in a large bend of the Alabama River. It has become famous in the last decade for its remarkable quilts.

In 1816, Joseph Gee brought slaves to the area and started a cotton plantation, which was sold in 1845 to the Pettway family. After the Civil War, the farm’s freed slaves remained on the land as sharecroppers and many took the last name of Pettway.

In the winter of 1932-33, the community’s particular isolation — with a small ferry to the east and a bad road to the west — and its dire poverty came to the attention of the Red Cross, which sent a boatload of flour and meal.   It began receiving Resettlement Agency assistance in 1935, and the Agency purchased the plantation in 1937. By 1939, when the Farm Security Administration sent Wolcott to take photos, there had been a number of improvements, such as new homes (one is pictured above).

In 1962, when residents began trying to register to vote, the local government eliminated the ferry service, which connected Gee’s Bend to the county seat of Camden. Without it, people of the community had to drive more than an hour to reach the town. The ferry service remained closed until 2006.

In 2002, an exhibition of quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and then traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York City. Another show in Houston and at the Smithsonian Institution followed in 2006. The New York Times art critic, Michael Kimmelman, called the quilts on display “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

In August of the same year, the United States Postal Service released ten stamps picturing Gee’s Bend quilts sewn between 1940 and 2001.

The U.S. Embassy in Rwanda has three Gee’s Bend quilts by Mary Lee Bendolph and Loretta Bennett in its permanent art collection.

*Via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

8 thoughts on “The Sunday porch: Gee’s Bend

  1. I was just reading about Gee’s Bend in the book you gave me…beautiful stuff! So fantastic that you have three right there…can we see them?
    Those chairs are right up your alley!:)

  2. That’s a pretty amazing photo. Those chairs!!! Obviously the creative genes that led to the remarkable quilts were flowing into other domestic activities. Really enjoyed seeing this.

  3. Hi all,
    Thanks so much for your comments. (I’ve just returned from three weeks of travel.)

    Those chairs just amaze me. Although I can’t find a reference to Jorena Pettway as a quilter (Wolcott did take one photo of her at the sewing machine), clearly she was an artist with wood and paint.

    If you would like to see the Gee’s Bend quilts in the Embassy’s art collection, click here.

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