Image: Essie Bendolph Pettway, Two-sided quilt: Blocks and 'One Patch' - stacked squares and rectangles variation (detail), 1973 Cotton, polyester knit, denim. 223.5 x 203.2 cm, 88 x 80 ins. © Essie Bendolph Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
Ahead of the reopening of The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers exhibition this month, the Alison Jacques Gallery, London, is presenting a parallel online exhibition foregrounding the cultural impact and social importance of the Freedom Quilting Bee, a community cooperative born out of the civil rights movement that allowed quiltmakers in Alabama to earn money for their work, translating a centuries-old domestic craft into a viable economic enterprise. The show is organised in partnership with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the contributions of African American artists from the Southern states.
Image: Qunnie Pettway, 'Bricklayer' variation, 2005, Corduroy and cotton, 210.8 x 188 cm, 83 x 74 ins. © Qunnie Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
In 1965, Father Francis X. Walter, a white Episcopal priest, was driving through Wilcox County, deep in the Alabama Black Belt, a region stretching across the centre of the state that is named for its dark and fertile topsoil. As the newly appointed executive director of the Selma Inter-religious Project, an Alabama civil rights organisation, Father Walter had been dispatched to collect testimony from Black families who, having publicly demonstrated for their right to vote, were facing bank loan foreclosures, eviction and jailtime. As Father Walter travelled through Possum Bend, a small community on the Camden side of the Alabama river that was established in the late 1800s, he caught sight of a clothesline hung with three quilts, their patterns assertive, their materials varied, their colours magnificent. Having introduced himself to the creator of the quilts, Ora McDaniels, Father Walter enquired about other quiltmakers in the region and was led to the nearby town of Gee’s Bend, now known as Boykin, where he came across a tightknit community of women that was organised around a rich and storied quilting tradition that spanned generations.
Image: Rebecca Myles Jones, Center Medallion - stacked bricks with checkerboard frame, c. 1950s. Cotton, corduroy, 215.9 x 193 cm, 85 x 76 ins © Rebecca Myles Jones / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
Having gone door to door, marvelling at the complexity and originality of the textiles on display, Father Walter proposed auctioning the quilts in New York and redirecting the proceeds to the quilters through a cooperative. In the coming weeks, Father Walter borrowed $700 from the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, purchased 70 quilts for $10 each, at least twice the going rate, and shipped them to New York. The first auction took place on 27 March 1966, in a photography studio near Central Park West. It was a success. More than $1,100 was forwarded to a new organisation established in Rehoboth, around 12 miles north of Gee’s Bend: the Freedom Quilting Bee. 'God sent him through', said founding member Polly Mooney Bennett of Father Walter, 'cause the quilting bee have helped a lot of people.'