Freedom Quilting Bee

19 March - 31 May 2021
  • Polly Bennett, Sarah Benning, Rachel Carey George, Minder Coleman, Helen McCloud, Lucy Mingo, Flora Moore, Rebecca Myles Jones, Joerina C. Pettway, Lola Pettway, Loretta Pettway, Lutisha Pettway, Nancy Pettway, Qunnie Pettway, Loretta Pettway Bennett, Sally Mae Pettway Mixon, Sue Willie Seltzer, Nettie Young. 

  • 'There are so many ladies here in Boykin who really didn't have the opportunity and didn't have the skills to go out and get a job. But once they got to the quilting bee, that was something for them. I just didn't only want it for myself. I wanted it for whoever would get able to get them a job there.'

    Lucy Mingo, 1987

    Ahead of the reopening of The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers on 12 April, Alison Jacques Gallery presents a parallel online exhibition foregrounding the cultural impact and social importance of the Freedom Quilting Bee, a community cooperative born out of the civil rights movement that allowed quiltmakers in Alabama to earn money for their work, translating a centuries-old domestic craft into a viable economic enterprise. The show is organised in partnership with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the contributions of African American artists from the Southern states. 

     

    On 9 December 1965, Father Francis X. Walter, a white Episcopal priest, was driving through Wilcox County, deep in the Alabama Black Belt, a region stretching across the centre of the state that is named for its dark and fertile topsoil. As the newly appointed executive director of the Selma Inter-religious Project, an Alabama civil rights organisation, Father Walter had been dispatched to collect testimony from Black families who, having publicly demonstrated for their right to vote, were facing bank loan foreclosures, eviction and jailtime.

     

    As Father Walter travelled through Possum Bend, a small community on the Camden side of the Alabama river that was established in the late 1800s, he caught sight of a clothesline hung with three quilts, their patterns assertive, their materials varied, their colours magnificent. Having introduced himself to the creator of the quilts, Ora McDaniels, Father Walter enquired about other quiltmakers in the region and was led to the nearby town of Gee’s Bend, now known as Boykin, where he came across a tightknit community of women that was organised around a rich and storied quilting tradition that spanned generations.

  • Rebecca Myles Jones, 'Center Medallion - stacked bricks with checkerboard frame', c. 1950s Rebecca Myles Jones, 'Center Medallion - stacked bricks with checkerboard frame', c. 1950s
  • Having gone door to door, marvelling at the complexity and originality of the textiles on display, Father Walter proposed auctioning the quilts in New York and redirecting the proceeds to the quilters through a cooperative. In the coming weeks, Father Walter borrowed $700 from the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, purchased 70 quilts for $10 each, at least twice the going rate, and shipped them to New York. The first auction took place on 27 March 1966, in a photography studio near Central Park West. It was a success. More than $1,100 was forwarded to a new organisation established in Rehoboth, around 12 miles north of Gee’s Bend: the Freedom Quilting Bee. 'God sent him through', said founding member Polly Mooney Bennett of Father Walter, 'cause the quilting bee have helped a lot of people.'

  • In the coming years, the Freedom Quilting Bee grew in scale and repute, with an increased awareness of such quilters as Loretta Pettway, Polly Bennett and Lucy Mingo generating an equivalent increase in demand. (Having spent their early days operating from a shop in Gee’s Bend, the Freedom Quilting Bee eventually relocated to a purpose-built centre on County Road 29, a midpoint between Gee’s Bend and Alberta.) Indeed, public and commercial interest was so significant that some herald the Bee for initiating a renaissance in the popularity of quilting in American interior design. The quilts went on sale at Bloomingdale’s in 1969; three years later, the cooperative won a long-term contract with the department store Sears, Roebuck to manufacture corduroy pillow shams. In 1971, just five years after the first New York auction of the quilts, Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof opened the exhibition 'Abstract Design in American Quilts' at the Whitney Museum of American Art to critical acclaim.

  • Minder Coleman, 'Log Cabin' - 'Courthouse Steps' variation (local name: 'Bricklayer'), c. 1940 Minder Coleman, 'Log Cabin' - 'Courthouse Steps' variation (local name: 'Bricklayer'), c. 1940
  • In 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers had purchased around 2,500 acres of Wilcox County land in order to erect a dam on the Alabama River, which submerged a third of Gee’s Bend, marginalised cotton farmers and left many below the poverty line. As such, the Freedom Quilting Bee became a crucial, if unexpected, source of financial relief. But the cooperative also inspired an evolution in making practices in Gee’s Bend and Rehoboth. The commercial sector demanded consistent production standards and a uniformity of design, which increased the overall quality of the quilts, while new fabrics were delivered to Alabama to align the textiles with contemporary trends. While Gee’s Bend quilts had historically been assembled from salvaged materials, worn-out clothes and affordable samples, something exemplified here by Rachel Carey George’s use of denim and sacking material, the affiliates of the Freedom Quilting Bee were now working with corduroy, polyester, nylon and velveteen, not to mention Egyptian cottons produced by Liberty of London. 

  • A number of quilters resisted these new standards. The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers arranged their textiles into loose taxonomies that were reflective of their patterning or assembly process – these included ‘Medallion’, ‘Housetop & Bricklayer’ and ‘Lazy Gal’, illustrated here in the work of Loretta Pettway Bennett, Lutisha Pettway and Qunnie Pettway. Another, ‘Abstraction & Improvisation’, was colloquially referred to as ‘My Way’, and for a faction of the quilters, this was not only a categorising phrase but a creative philosophy. But for the majority, the influx of durable, malleable and wholly unusual materials opened up previously unavailable opportunities for experimentation. As is evidenced by the compositionally distinct work of Sarah Benning, Helen McCloud and Sue Willie Seltzer, these materials did not inhibit the aesthetic vocabulary of the quiltmakers but, rather, allowed them to enhance it further. Through these new fabrics, they found a new way to speak.

  • Joerina C. Pettway, 'Housetop' - 'Log Cabin' variation, c. 1940 Joerina C. Pettway, 'Housetop' - 'Log Cabin' variation, c. 1940
  • 'The quilting bee has done something for Gee’s Bend in a lot of ways', quilter Aolar Carson Mosley told Nancy Callahan in 1987, 'it's done brought us a long way'. The Freedom Quilting Bee ceased operations in the 1990s; in 2011, Nettie Young, the last living member of the original Freedom Quilting Bee, passed away. But throughout its three-decades, the cooperative became a vital asset to the local area. Just as it brought residents together and validated their age-old craft, so too did it generate income, allow local quilters to qualify for social security and increase awareness of the more systemic issues that impeded the region. The Freedom Quilting Bee has left its mark on the Wilcox County, in this sense, on those who call it home, and it has left its mark on the quilts that continue to be produced in the region. Like most things in Gee’s Bend and Rehoboth, it will be remembered as a small yet vital block in a much larger quilt, the final design of which is yet to be determined.

    The story of the Freedom Quilting Bee is preserved by the Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy, an organisation founded in Alberta, Alabama, to celebrate the work and accomplishments of the women who made the cooperative such a powerful artistic and social force.

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