In 1816 Joseph Gee traveled with eighteen slaves from Halifax County in North Carolina to the rich, black soil of a horseshoe bend in the Alabama River, about forty-five miles from Selma. There he established a promising cotton plantation, named simply but appropriately Gee’s Bend.
Joseph Gee died eight years into plantation life at Gee’s Bend, and two of his nephews, Sterling and Charles, inherited the land and forty-seven slaves. Twenty years later, in 1845, the Gee brothers were up to their collars in debt to their cousin Mark Pettway—$29,000-worth, which in today’s money would equal at least a million. They gave him Gee’s Bend, including all her slaves, as a settlement.
The next year Pettway and his family made the big move from North Carolina to this productive pouch of land carved out by the Alabama, and they brought with them over one hundred slaves of their own. Family and material possessions traveled by wagon; slaves traveled by foot—over seven hundred miles and in a wet December. When they arrived, they found ten thousand acres of some of the finest soil in the South, almost entirely surrounded by a red and brown and yellow river, and only one road in and out—the same road a traveler uses today unless he takes the ferry.
But the river served as a road in those days, with boats taking planters, gamblers, and Southern aristocrats along with the shipments of cotton up and down and back and across. The river brought the world by, but it also kept the world out. Gee’s Bend was a country and community—a colony—unto itself.
At the end of another score of years all of the Pettway slaves were set free, thanks to President Lincoln, but hardly any of them left Gee’s Bend. Cotton had been their life and this was their home. Where would they go? Almost without a hitch, they went on planting and picking cotton for the Pettway family, only this time as sharecroppers and tenants, not as slaves. Most of them also kept the Pettway name, and just about everyone who lives there today either is a Pettway or is related to a Pettway in some way.
When the Pettway family finally sold Gee’s Bend at the end of the nineteenth century, Pettway’s former slaves and their descendants—in the hundreds by then—stayed on to work for the new landlord, Tuscaloosa attorney Adrian Sebastian Van de Graaff. But Van de Graaff ruled his cotton kingdom from afar, and so the land and the former slave quarters and the Big House and the river that wrapped it all up like a quilt, belonged more and more to those who lived on it and kept it alive just as it kept them alive. Gee’s Bend was no longer a white man’s plantation as much as it was a rich, deeply-bonded community of Black Americans.
And these were not simply black Americans but those who still spoke with a mixture of African dialect and backwoods English. They were thoroughly Christian, of course, but they also still believed many inherited superstitions brought with them to Gee’s Bend from another continent and another time. They still believed, for instance, that those who sit on a log can expect disaster to follow, or that if you carry money in your pocket after dark, the spirits of the dead will be close on your heels. Indeed throughout much of the twentieth century, even the other blacks in the county referred to the blacks of Gee’s Bend as “the Africans,” isolated and tribal and traditional as they were.
But they were not isolated enough to be insulated from the effects of the Depression. When cotton dropped from forty to only five cents a pound, the year’s crop no longer covered the sharecropper’s debt. A local merchant in Camden, seven miles south as the blackbird flies but over forty taking the road around the river, continued to extend credit to Gee’s Bend farmers, securing their debt with chattel liens on their possessions and hoping for cotton prices to rise. When the merchant died, however, his spiteful widow loaded the ferry with armed men and took everything that could be sold—tools, mules, wagons, furniture, plows, and seed. The poorest of the poor got even poorer.
Some left. The majority who stayed survived the winter on berries and plums and squirrels and fish. The Red Cross found them and brought them meat and meal, and then another President found them—this time it was Franklin D. Roosevelt. When FDR heard there was an entire community starving on a peninsula in southern Alabama, he began crafting a rescue plan. In 1937 the federal government bought Gee’s Bend from Van de Graaf (who, to his credit, had not charged his tenants rent for years) and then turned around and sold it back to Gee’s Bend families, granting low-interest loans for the purchase of land and for building new homes. Gee’s Bend was saved, and those who had once been owned along with the land were now the owners of the land. The nightmare had turned into a dream come true.
Good times did not last long, however. As farming across America became mechanized in the thirties and forties, the small farm, the Gee’s Bend sort of farm, lost out. More left, although most remained. When Martin Luther King, Jr., visited Gee’s Bend in the sixties, there were as many as a thousand “Benders” who gathered to hear him put words to their dream. Gee’s Bend was honored even in King’s death: the mules which pulled the wagon bearing his casket were from this paradigmatic, struggling black community on the other side of the river.
Gee’s Bend heard King’s call to freedom, perhaps even more clearly than their ancestors had Lincoln’s a century before. Some left to try their wings in a world of new opportunity, while others asserted their rights closer to home—at neighboring Camden, the county seat. When Benders came out to cross the river in order to exercise their right to vote one evening, they found the ferry gone. The year was 1966. Forty years would pass before ferry service was restored. Gee’s Bend, on the verge of interacting with America in a way they never had before, was cut off and pushed back into their pouch once again.
But not before America had begun to take notice of Gee’s Bend. As part of the Civil Rights Movement, King had encouraged a Freedom Quilting Bee, and the women of Gee’s Bend, who knew well how to use scraps of anything to make quilts to keep their folks warm in the winter, had joined in with their own quilting initiative. Over the years, their peculiar art and the story of Gee’s Bend began to draw attention. Then in the 1990’s Atlanta folk-art collector William Arnett showed up at Gee’s Bend after seeing a photograph of quilt draped across a woodpile. He bought hundreds. Before long the quilts were featured at an art show in Houston, then in New York City, and then all over the country. The quilting ladies of poor, isolated Gee’s Bend and their curious folk art became famous overnight, and a new source of fairly steady income for the community started rolling in like the Alabama River that rolls all around them. The median household income is still only around $25,000, but they are making it, and the community of Gee’s Bend lives on to add new chapters in their remarkable and enduring story.