Gee’s Bend – officially called Boykin – is a small enclave of just over 200 people, tucked into a bend in the Alabama River. Surrounded on three sides by water, there’s just one road in and a ferry that runs a few times a day. Many residents are descendants of the enslaved people of the old Pettway plantation, and they still share Pettway as a last name.
After emancipation, their ancestors stayed and farmed. But the community remained isolated and impoverished. The women of Gee’s Bend worked in the fields, cared for children, cooked, cleaned and sewed quilts to keep their families warm. They used found materials and old clothes and created quilts with a unique and improvisational look.
In the late 90’s, an art dealer named Bill Arnett visited Gee’s Bend and was captivated by the artistry he saw. Another master quilter, Mary Margaret Pettway, remembers when this stranger showed up in town wanting to buy her mother’s quilts.