Five works by the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers are on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) in a presentation titled ‘She Knew Where She Was Going: Gee’s Bend Quilts and Civil Rights’. The quilts, by Pearlie Irby Pettway, Loretta Pettway, Nell Hall Williams, Lucy Mingo and Lucy T. Pettway, were recently acquired by the BMA with the support of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership.
Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is home to generations of extraordinary Black craftswomen whose quilts represent a crucial chapter in the history of American Art. Since the early 1800s, women of Gee’s Bend have transformed worn clothes, sacks, and other fabric remnants into patterns that surpass the boundaries of the genre. Born out of necessity, the quilts provided warmth for family and friends while bearing witness to shared knowledge passed down among quilting groups and female lineages.
Burdened by decades of exploitative sharecropping and racial discrimination, Gee’s Bend quilters seized an opportunity to use their artistry for empowerment in 1966, following a visit by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr to Gee’s Bend. Determined to live in a more equal society as well as enfranchise their families, more than 60 quilters formed a business partnership called the Freedom Quilting Bee (1966–2012). This cooperative championed the vision and production of Gee’s Bend quilters in national art auctions, commercial partnerships and museum exhibitions. Within three years, their ingenuity altered the local economy. Quilters were able to purchase washing machines, automobiles and school supplies, in addition to telephones and electricity lines.