Gee’s Bend quilters come to Demopolis

Published 10:16 pm Friday, June 12, 2009

Gee’s Bend is probably the best-known place in Alabama that you may never find. It’s not on many maps, since it officially became known as Boykin in 1949, but the Wilcox County community located about 60 miles from Demopolis has a fame that surpasses geography.

Surrounded on all sides by a sharp bend in the Alabama River, Gee’s Bend is the home of some of the most famous quilts in the nation. On Thursday, Gee’s Bend came to Demopolis, as the quilters brought their quilts to exhibit and sell, told stories of their past and sang gospel favorites as part of the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce program “Sax in the City.”

“We started performing in 2000,” said China Pettway. “We went to Houston, Texas. We sang at the museum, and we started telling our stories. Back in the day when my mother was quilting, they would sit around the quilt and sing, they would pray and they would talk. It was so hard for them, back in those days, and when those ladies would get together, they told each other their problems. Just talking would help. It would soothe their minds.”

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Pettway was one of 11 children who often went to bed hungry.

“It was a rough life, but I thank God for it,” she said. “Those were the good old days. God was getting us ready, making us go through those trials and tribulations, getting us ready for today. We go to so many places, and people treat us so nice, like they have here.”

The other quilters on stage — Florine Smith, Mary Ann Pettway and Reva Moseley — told similar stories of hard times growing up and how they got through them. They spoke about growing up without electricity and having to carry water to their homes.

The crowd on hand enjoyed the mix of songs and stories and took part in a question-and-answer session with the ladies when the performance was through.

According to the Web site, the community’s women developed a distinctive, bold and sophisticated quilting style based on traditional American and African-American styles. With a tradition handed down over at least six generations, the quilts of Gee’s Bend were presented in an exhibition in 2002 in the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.” That exhibition was accompanied by two books, and the quilters have been featured in a documentary video and a double CD of Gee’s Bend gospel music from 1941 to 2002. In 2006, several of the quilts were featured in a collection of U.S. Postage Stamps.

Gee’s Bend is a place that exists more in legend than in latitude and longitude. It represents a time and lifetimes of simple needs and few resources. The quilts of Gee’s Bend are a culmination of struggles and heartaches, friendship and family. It is said that every quilt tells a story. The women of Gee’s Bend and their generations are the writers of that story.