Celebrated Gee’s Bend Quilters visit North Alabama Agriplex

Gee’s Bend Quilters China Pettway (left) and Mary Ann Pettway (right) sang for program participants at the North Alabama Agriplex’s Heritage Homeschool program Thursday morning. (Maggie Darnell for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The North Alabama Agriplex on Thursday hosted celebrated Gee’s Bend Quilters Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway. The Gee’s Bend Quilters are multiple generations of women from Gee’s Bend, a small, remote, African-American community in Wilcox County, Alabama. The women of Gee’s Bend have created hundreds of masterpiece quilts since the early 20th century.

Historian Mary Allison Haynie, former executive director of the Alabama Folklife Association, accompanied the Pettways, providing historical background on the area around Boykin (Gee’s Bend). She said Wilcox County was influenced by significant events throughout Alabama’s history, including slavery, Reconstruction, the New Deal, the Great Depression and the civil rights movement.

The special day was made possible through a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF).

Haynie said Gee’s Bend got its name from plantation owner Joseph Gee, who sold the land to Mark H. Pettway. Notice the last name? Haynie said after emancipation, most freed slaves took the last names of their former owners. She said the official town name for Gee’s Bend, Boykin, came from the government’s establishment of a post office.

The Pettways both laughed about being so well-known, saying they didn’t feel famous. They talked of the importance of showing humility.

“It’s not about quilting, it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus,” said Mary Ann Pettway.

“I thank God for this job,” she said. “This is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Some people get up in life, like people tell us that we’re famous, you know, I don’t feel famous! But I thank God that you all give us that fame. I tell people we don’t have the fame; we have the fortune. It may not be money-wise, but we do have the fortune of a healthy strength to be able to travel. But I thank God for allowing us to be able to do what we do.”

“I made my first quilt when I was 11 years old,” China Pettway said. “It was made from old clothes: old skirt, old dress, old pants, old blouse, everything was old! Because during those days, we didn’t have a fancy store near us and we didn’t have the money to buy fabric, so when clothes became worn out, my mother, she would take the best of those clothes that were torn up and make quilts out of them!”

The women also sang several gospels songs and shared their history within Gee’s Bend.

Agriplex Educator Nicole Taylor was pleased with the response to the events (there was a morning and evening program).

“I’m happy people were interested and wanted to come!” she said.

She told The Tribune in an earlier interview, “The Gee’s Bend quilters are recognized nationally not only for their unique quilting style but also as one of the most diverse visual and cultural contributors to the history of art in the United States.”

Find out more at www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers.

Taylor estimated 80 people signed up for the evening program, which she said she thinks is one of the biggest responses to an Agriplex adult program.

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