Program Essay for Gee's Bend

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Program Essay for Gee's Bend

  1. 1. The Art of Necessity by Thomas Canfield Like kaleidoscopic portraits in tion from the modern world ata family album chronicling adver- large.sity, struggle and triumph, the Secluded on three sides withinextraordinary quilts created by a massive, oxbow-shaped curve ofgenerations of women in Gee’s the Alabama River in one of theBend, Alabama, are a remarkably nation’s poorest regions, Gee’spersonal, picturesque record of Bend is about 30 miles southwesttheir community’s resilience under of Selma and seven miles directlydifficult circumstances. In a mate- across the river from the Wilcoxrialistic age of manufactured com- County seat of Camden. The com-modities, the fact that the deep- munity, spanning an area fiverooted art of quilting has endured miles long and eight miles wide,in Gee’s Bend is a testament not comprises approximately 750only to the community’s devotion African-American citizens. Theirto tradition but also the result of earliest ancestors were broughtprolonged geographical segrega- from North Carolina as slaves in Cabins on the old Pettway Plantation. Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 1937. Arthur Rothstein, photographer Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division 35
  2. 2. 1816 by Joseph Gee, who estab- After the cotton market lished a cotton plantation there. crashed during the Great Depres- Ownership of the plantation sion, the widow of a merchant who changed twice before the Civil had extended credit to the families War. Mark H. Pettway, the planta- of Gee’s Bend foreclosed on the tion’s final antebellum owner, community in 1932. Arriving on marched an additional 100 or more horseback, armed collection agents took all the Gee’s Benders’ posses- sions, including food, livestock, farming tools and seeds. Only emergency rations distributed by the Red Cross alleviated the near- starvation that families suffered that winter. In 1934-35, supple- mentary aid followed when the Federal Emergency Relief Admin- Annie Pettway Bendolph carrying water, istration provided small farm loans Gee’s Bend, Alabama, April 1937. Arthur Rothstein, photographer as well as seeds, implements and Library of Congress, Prints & livestock. As part of Roosevelt’s Photographs Division New Deal in the late 1930s and 1940s, the government acquired slaves there in 1845-46. They 10,000 acres of the land and made walked over 700 miles from North no-interest loans to Gee’s Bend Carolina to Alabama. After emancipation, the freed black popu- lation remained on the land, in virtually unchanged circum- stances, as share- croppers and tenant farmers. Many of their descendants retain the Pettway name to this day. Pettway girl. Gee’s Bend, Alabama, April 1937. Arthur Rothstein, photographer Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division36
  3. 3. Old cable ferry between Camden and Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collectionresidents, allowing them to pur- ditional gospel music in Gee’schase their small farms. Approxi- Bend during the following decade.mately 100 Roosevelt Project Although the hamlet’s name washouses were erected, along with a officially changed to Boykin ingeneral store, cotton gin, black- 1949 (the same year the first postsmith shop, sawmill, school and office was built), locals still referclinic. to it as Gee’s Bend, as do the road The result was a self-suffi- signs. Electricity did not arrivecient, landowning community of until 1964. Only one road, unpavedAfrican Americans who were until 1967, leads out of town. Gee’smarked by a strong sense of iden- Bend had no telephone service ortity and an indomitable spirit fos- running water until the mid-1970s.tered in the face of hardship. In the Because of it isolation, Gee’s1930s, Farm Security Administra- Bend was referred to as “Alabamation photographers captured the Africa” by other blacks in the deepisolation of the residents, and the south. Yet the community’s inde-Library of Congress recorded tra- pendence not only helped to 37
  4. 4. As a result, those few Gee’s Bend residents who owned cars had to drive approximately 100 miles round trip to get to Camden. Reportedly, the county sheriff at the time stated that “We didnt close the ferry Alabama River ferry operator from Camden to Gees because they were Bend,1939. black. We closed it Marion Post Wolcott, photographer because they forgot Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division they were black.” Today, while the preserve the distinct traditions of town has four churches, it has only quilting, story telling and gospel one post office and a grocery store. music; it also led the people of Such basic facilities as the school, Gee’s Bend to play a notable role in hospital and police station are the civil rights movement. During located miles away, a fact that has the voting rights activism of the only served to encourage the early 1960s, many Benders rode ardent self-reliance of the Benders the unreliable ferry across the river over time. Their isolation prevailed to register at the Camden court- for 44 years, until a new ferry house only to face armed law began operating in September of enforcement, tear gas and jail. 2006. Those Gee’s Bend residents who In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther were property owners could not be King Jr. spoke at Pleasant Grove evicted for their actions, yet further Baptist Church in Gee’s Bend. A retaliation came with the termina- few days later, he spoke outside the tion of the ferry service and loss of jail in Camden. Many Benders jobs in 1962, part of an overall who attended were subsequently effort to halt black civil rights jailed. Inspired by the strength of workers from traveling between the community, King used the geo- Camden and Gee’s Bend. graphical divide posed by the river38
  5. 5. as a rallying point, motivating sev- The quilts of Gee’s Benderal residents to join him in the reflect an artistry born from utility.famous October 30 march from Their beauty emerges from, and inSelma to Montgomery. After spite of, an inherited materialKing’s assassination in 1968, dearth reaching back to the days ofmules from Gee’s Bend pulled the slavery. Many Benders had little orwagon carrying his casket through no heat and lived in barely fur-Atlanta. nished, ramshackle homes, so In 1966, Francis X. Walter, an quilts provided warmth and protec-Episcopal minister and civil rights tion from the wind, cold and dust.worker, developed the idea of mar- While Gee’s Bend quilts look likeketing local talent to provide Minimalist art, their earliest cre-economic empowerment for area ators were actually inspired by thequilters. Farming came largely to a newspaper and catalog collagesclose when a federal dam construc- pasted on their walls to providetion project, completed just south insulation. Quilts were often madeof Gee’s Bend in 1970, flooded of limited available materials,thousands of acres of the area’s including feed and flour sacks,most fertile farming land. Nearly rags and tobacco pouches. Someone-third of the women in Gee’s artists fashioned “britches quilts”Bend joined the Freedom Quilting out of castoff clothes, such as over-Bee, an offshoot of the civil rights hauls, trouser legs and shirt tails,movement designed to boost often employing such materials toincome and foster community keep memories of deceased rela-development by selling their work tives alive. Yet until the outsideto outsiders. This cooperative, cen- world began applauding theirtered in the nearby town of quilts as art, the creators viewedRehoboth, provided some financial them as merely functional items.relief to the community. In the late Old quilts were burned to repel1960s, Gee’s Bend quilts were fea- mosquitoes, or used to mop uptured in Vogue and Life magazines, motor oil and protect automobilesand local artists received a long- from the elements.term commercial contract to sew Today, the quilters of Gee’sfor several department stores. Bend have garnered nationwide 39
  6. 6. acknowledgment and are being celebrated for their accomplishments. Gee’s Bend quilts have appeared in museum exhibitions from New York to Houston and San Francisco. Books, articles, short stories and films have highlighted the unique stories of the quilts and their creators who, for the first time in their lives, have a real income from their work. In 2006, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of Gee’s Bend stamps. This recognition has helped to revive a once-dying community and the nearly-lost art of quilting that has been passed down for generations from mothers and grandmothers to daughters and granddaughters. Thomas Canfield, who holds a Ph.D. in English with a specialty in Elizabethan drama, is working on his second M.A. in theatre history and dramatic literature at UMKC. He was the dramaturg for last season’s Rep production of King Lear, and for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Dr. Canfield is also an English instructor at Grantham University and the dramaturg for this season’s UMKC Theatre production of The Country Wife, William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy. Woman sewing a bedspread, Gees Bend, Alabama. c. 1938–1940 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division40

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