​Gee’s Bend Exhibit: the Local Connection

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

Decades before folk art dealer Mathew Arnett began collecting quilts from Gee’s Bend, the Freedom Quilting Bee cooperative brought prosperity and dignity to impoverished black women from Gee’s Bend and other rural Wilcox County, Ala., communities. None of the above would have come to pass without Sewanee resident Rev. Francis Walter’s hands-on work during the 1960s struggle for black civil rights.

In 1965, Walters answered a calling to Selma, in Wilcox County, to take up the work of civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels. Before Walter and Daniels ever met, Daniels died from a gunshot wound received shielding a young black woman as they tried to enter a whites-only store.

White landowners were evicting black tenant farmers who registered to vote. Walter and a fellow civil rights worker set out one afternoon to interview rural Possum Bend residents to find out if they were being evicted and if they needed housing. The road they traveled dead ended at the Alabama River. At a nearby cabin, stunning colorful quilts draped across a clothesline caught Walter’s eye. The quilts reminded him of the Op Art in vogue at the time.

The quilt maker ran into the woods and hid when Walter went to the door. Walter returned with a local black civil rights leader and the fearful quilt maker came out to talk. He asked if she sold quilts and for how much. The going rate: $5 with the white-woman buyer supplying the scraps and thread.

“Black women all over the county were making quilts,” Walter said. A friend suggested selling the quilts in New York City. One quilter he talked with about buying quilts directed him to nearby Gee’s Bend where he met the quilter Minder Coleman.

Walter explained he was paying $10 for quilts and planned to sell them in New York. Anything the quilts brought in above the initial purchase price would also go to the quilters.

“Minder knew an opportunity when she saw one,” Walter said. She asked what day Walter would be coming by and had all the local quilters display their quilts in their yards.

Walter bought 70 quilts. A friend in NYC coordinated an auction in Greenwich Village and sent back the cash. The success of the effort sparked an idea in Walter’s mind: the woman should form a quilting cooperative.

An attorney friend drew up articles of incorporation and the quilters met in a church to elect officers. For a while the quilters operated out of one another’s homes or abandoned houses. Walter headed up the Selma Interreligious Project (SIP), a multi-faith coalition of civil rights activists. With SIP’s help, Walter secured grant funding to build a sewing factory.

The architect husband of a supporter designed the building and local black laborers constructed it with locally made brickcrete blocks. Called the Martin Luther King Sewing Center, the facility included a childcare wing. The state of Alabama opposed blacks operating childcare programs. Finally an SIP worker ushered in approval for the center’s childcare program along with several others in the Selma area likewise operated by blacks.

A NYC connection arranged for sale of Freedom quilts at Bloomingdale’s. The department store wanted standardized sizing and patterns. The quilters were frustrated, but complied, welcoming the income. The center began to produce other items as well. The Sears and Roebuck craft division contracted for pillow shams, which brought in steady revenue and were far less labor intensive than quilts.

What did the quilters spend their money on? Graduation rings and deep freezers were top on the list according to Walter. Many used the income to pay for their children’s college education. They also built a home for an impoverished man and his son living in a hovel adjoining the sewing center property.

Sharing the good fortune was second nature to them. Asked about the name, the Freedom Quilting Bee, Walter said, “Everything was ‘freedom.’ The tent city that sprang up to shelter the evicted was called Freedom City. At demonstrations the song ‘Oh, Freedom’ rang out,” said Walter.

The Freedom Quilting Bee’s impact resonated far beyond impoverished Wilcox County, but the women didn’t always reap the benefits. A cousin suggested to Walter the women copyright their designs, an idea he dismissed. A few years later at a conference he saw a woman wearing a dress with fabric patterned after one of the Freedom quilts. It was seeing an illustration of a quilt from Gee’s Bend that prompted folk art dealer Arnett to travel there and pursue acquiring quilts for his collection.

Rennie Miller, retired following a career in management, hopes to revive the cooperative, according to Nancy Callahan, author of the book “The Freedom Quilting Bee.” Miller is the daughter of one of the original members. Her mother’s earnings from Freedom helped to finance her education.