100 Years of Gee's Bend Quilts: 1960s - 1970s

The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, Black community in Alabama, whose residents are mostly descended from slaves who worked the fields of the local Pettway plantation—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present.

By Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Gee's Bend quilts on a fence (2020) by Stephen PitkinSouls Grown Deep Foundation

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.

Medallion, Loretta Pettway, c. 1960, Original Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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String-pieced quilt, Loretta Pettway, 1960, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Loretta Pettway's earliest surviving quilts are made of everyday clothing, especially men's work clothes.

Loretta Pettway, b. 1942

"I had to struggle. I had a lot of work to do. Feed hogs, work in the field, take care of my handicapped brother. Had to go to the field. Get home too tired to do no sewing. My grandmama, Prissy Pettway, told me, 'You better make quilts. You going to need them.' I said, 'I ain't going to need no quilts.' But when I got me a house, a raggly old house, then I needed them to keep warm. We only had heat in the living room, and when you go out of that room you need cover. I had to get up about four, five o'clock, and get coal. Make a fire. Them quilts done keep you warm."

Loretta Pettway, David Raccuglia, 2000, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Strips, Irene Williams, 1960s, Original Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Irene Williams deconstructed used basketball jerseys to form a quilt that reads like a street map. with small “houses” identified by numbers along either side of a "main road” running down the center.

"Roman Stripes" variation, Deborah Pettway Young, c. 1960, Original Source: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Deborah Pettway Young, 1916 - 1997

Lola Saulsberry, sister of quiltmaker Arcola Pettway, reminisces about their mother, Deborah Pettway Young. "She made a lot of quilts, and she made dresses. And she did it without patterns. If she saw a dress somebody had on the TV, she could make it. The same was true of her quilting. I remember something she saw on TV, she made it into a quilt. I never dreamed that people would pay attention to her and Arcola's quilts. They were just making them to keep warm."

Deborah Pettway Young, Unknown, n.d., From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Blocks and strips (121-01) (c. 1965) by Amelia BennettOriginal Source: National Gallery of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Strips and strings










Taught from generation to generation, string and strip quilts most fully embody the themes of utility and frugality.










They were reserved for the smallest of leftover irregular shapes and sizes of prints and solids.

"Sampler" medallion, Nancy Pettway, 1968, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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“l say a quilt is like a house—when you design a house, you make in your mind how your house design to be."     

"Housetop"—”four-block variation", Mary L. Bennett, c. 1965, Original Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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"Housetop"—four-block variation, Delia Bennett, 1952, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Mary L. Bennett learned to quilt by observing her grandmother, Delia Bennett (1892–1976). Several of her compositions recall those of her grandmother, particularly this strip quilt in bold colors divided into four differently sized quadrants.

Mary L. Bennett, b. 1942

"I was born down here in Brown Quarters in 1942 and got raised by my grandmother Delia Bennett. I started out working in the fields—I ought to been about ten or eleven—hoeing, picking cotton, pulling corn, stripping millet, digging sweet potatoes, picking squashes and cucumbers, and putting them in the crocus sacks. I didn’t get no schooling—every now and then a day here and there. Didn’t nobody teach me to make quilts. I just learned it by myself, about twelve or thirteen. I was seeing my grandmama piecing it up, and then I start. I just taken me some pieces and put it together, piece them up till they look like I want them to look."

Mary L. Bennett, Stephen Pitkin, 2020, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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"Housetop" with cross, Linda Diane Bennett, c. 1970, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Freedom Quilting Bee (1980) by John ReeseSouls Grown Deep Foundation

Freedom Quilting Bee

Gee's Bend quilts attracted national attention for the first time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in large measure because of a cooperative, the Freedom Quilting Bee, that was closely connected with local civil rights initiatives.

"One Patch," tied (1970) by America IrbyOriginal Source: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston










American Irby's daughter, Mensie Lee, worked at the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative based in Alberta, Alabama, near Gee's Bend, and would bring her mother leftover scraps.










The scraps here are leftovers from a Freedom Quilting Bee contract to manufacture dashikis.

Sears wide-wale cotton corduroy cushions (1970s) by SearsSouls Grown Deep Foundation

Sears Corduroy

In 1972 the Freedom Quilting Bee secured a contract with Sears, Roebuck to produce corduroy pillow covers. Made of a wide-wale cotton corduroy, the covers came in a variety of colors including "gold," "avocado leaf," "tangerine," and "cherry red."  

Leftover scraps of corduroy were taken home by workers at the Bee. Given to friends and family or bundled for sale within the community, the scraps were then transformed from standardized remnants into vibrant and individualized works of art.

"Basket Weave", Nettie Jane Kennedy, 1973, Original Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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"Housetop"—fractured medallion variation, Rita Mae Pettway, 1977, Original Source: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Nettie Jane Kennedy, 1916 - 2002

"Mama started me out making quilts. I done it with my sister three years older than me. Her name was Indiana, same as Mama. Mama and Indiana and me was the ones making quilts. Papa used to buy what they call quilt rolls for Mama to make quilts out of. It was scrap cloth. All sort of mixed-up stuff. We used old clothes sometime, if they wore out but was still fittin' to put in a quilt."

Nettie Jane Kennedy, David Raccuglia, 2000, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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"Housetop" variation (Vote quilt) (c. 1975) by Irene WilliamsOriginal Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation










Wilcox County, home to Gee's Bend, was the scene of fierce voting-rights struggles in the 1960s.










Irene Williams made several quilts that contain fabric printed with the word "vote."

Irene Williams, 1920 - 2015

"I was born in Wilcox County, in Rehoboth, Alabama. My parents was born in Rehoboth, too. I didn't know about slaves when we was coming up. My people wasn't no slaves. My grandparents might have been slaves, as far as I know. Back in them years they didn't do nothing but farm in the fields. Making corn, peas, potatoes and everything, and raised hogs in the yard. That's what we lived on: what we made. When I got married, I started making quilts. I just put stuff together. I didn't do the best I could, because in them years I didn't have nothing but what little we got to make quilts and things out of."

Irene Williams, William S. Arnett, 2002, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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