100 Years of Gee's Bend Quilts: 1940s - 1950s

The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, Black community in Alabama have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present.

Sewing a quilt. Gees Bend, Alabama [Lucy Mooney] (1937) by Arthur RothsteinOriginal Source: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. It is not uncommon to find quilts by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family.

"Housetop"—four-block "Half-Log Cabin" variation, Lottie Mooney, c. 1940, Original Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt (1942) by Missouri PettwayOriginal Source: The National Gallery of Art, Museum Purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

With her daughter Arlonzia, Missouri Pettway made this quilt in the early 1940s from the work clothes of her husband, Nathaniel, who died in 1941.

Arlonzia describes it: "It was when Daddy died. He stayed sick about eight months and passed on. Mama say, 'I going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love.'"

Medallion with center bars (1943) by Polly BennettSouls Grown Deep

Polly Bennett’s Medallion quilt is similar in construction to a Pennsylvania Amish quilt commonly called "Bars."

But her version, a mixture of the serene and the whimsical—its understatement broken by a frame of red and white printed fabrics featuring exotic flowers and Hawaiian scenes—is as far removed philosophically from the Amish as it is geographically.

"Half-Log Cabin" variation (1949) by Creola Bennett PettwayOriginal Source: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Creola Bennett Pettway made this "Housetop" variation as a gift for her brother and his fiancée when they announced their wedding plans.

Each of four large blocks is constructed of four smaller blocks of Housetop quadrants; each has a slightly different arrangement of its components, as do the four strips that form the quilt’s border.

Bars and string-pieced columns, Jessie T. Pettway, 1950s, Original Source: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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This Jessie T. Pettway quilt appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 2006, yet she seems perplexed by the admiration of it. "That's just a lot of strings sewed together," she insists. "I wasn't trying to keep nothing in order. I turned the narrow end next to the wide end and just sewed it together."

Jessie T. Pettway (2000) by David RaccugliaSouls Grown Deep

Jessie T. Pettway, b. 1929

"My aunt had a old book of patterns that she sometime used, but I didn't like no book patterns. I couldn't buy pretty materials, so I couldn't make pretty patterns. I like what folks called 'Bricklayer' 'cause you could make it into something pretty with any old kind of cloth."

"Housetop" (c. 1955) by Nettie Jane KennedyOriginal Source: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

To the extent that there is a favorite "pattern" in Gee's Bend, it is the "Housetop" or a quilt dominated by concentric squares." It begins with a medallion of solid cloth, or one of an endless number of pieced motifs, to anchor the quilt.

After that, "Housetops" share the technique of joining rectangular strips of cloth so that the end of a strip's long side connects to one short side of a neighboring strip, eventually forming a kind of frame surrounding the central patch;

increasingly larger frames or borders are added until a block is declared complete.

"Housetop"—"Half-Log Cabin" variation, Aolar Mosely, c. 1950, Original Source: The Studio Museum in Harlem, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Within the simple concept of squares within squares, Gee's Bend quiltmakers exercise their individual design abilities to produce an extraordinary variety of solutions.

"Housetop" and "Bricklayer" blocks with bars (c. 1955) by Lucy T. PettwayOriginal Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

In the mid-l950s Lucy T. Pettway created an extraordinary block-and-strip quilt that presented an almost literal map of a section of the old Pettway plantation.

At the top is the large plantation house.

Beneath it are four slave cabins, each with a slightly different architectural configuration, and strips that denote dirt roads and paths.

On one side is a representation of the fields and their variety of crops.

and on the other the Alabama River.

Lucy T. Pettway, 1921 - 2004

"I was a farmer. I’m the fourth of fourteen children of Mary Ann and Tom O. Pettway. We farmed cotton, corn, peanuts, sugarcane, peas, millet—called it sorghum in them days. I plowed mules and steers. I always had taken me some quilt pieces in the fields when I was working there, and when I knock off work at twelve to eat, I make me a block or so till I go back to the fields. When the field days ended, I went to making quilts most all the time when I wasn’t sewing and making clothes for my children to wear."

Lucy T. Pettway, Unknown photographer, 1940s, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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"Housetop" with center medallion, Lutisha Pettway, c. 1955, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt, Lucy Mingo, 1959, Original Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Lucy Mingo has always preferred to use old, discarded clothes and subdued colors in her quilts.

Lucy Mingo, b. 1931

Descending from several generations of quiltmakers, Lucy Mingo became one of Gee’s Bend’s leading spokespersons during the civil rights era. "After Dr. King came down, we marched and went to Camden, and we became registered voters. And then things changed. You could ask for a job when you were a registered voter. The first movement I went to was with Nancy Brown in Camden at the gas company. And we got down on our knees, and she began to pray. And then I see everybody closing up the stores, and she said, 'Don’t y’all run and don’t y’all move.' And I stayed in the movement. Civil rights took a long time. It didn’t happen overnight. I marched in Montgomery and over the Pettus Bridge. Some people went to jail, but they didn’t let the old people stay in there overnight. My son Eugene, he stay in jail for a week one time. School kids did. Peoples want to become registered voters. That was our main priority."

Lucy Mingo, Stephen Pitkin, 2019, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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