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Installation view, She Knew Where She Was Going: Gee's Bend Quilts and Civil Rights. Photo by Mitro Hood.

She Knew Where She Was Going: Gee’s Bend Quilts and Civil Rights

Overview

Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is home to generations of extraordinary Black craftswomen whose quilts represent a crucial chapter in the history of American Art. Since the early 1800s, women of Gee’s Bend have transformed worn clothes, sacks, and other fabric remnants into patterns that surpass the boundaries of the genre. Born out of necessity, the quilts provided warmth for family and friends while bearing witness to shared knowledge passed down among quilting groups and female lineages.

Burdened by decades of exploitative sharecropping and racial discrimination, Gee’s Bend quilters seized an opportunity to use their artistry for empowerment in 1966, following a visit by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr to Gee’s Bend. Determined to live in a more equal society as well as enfranchise their families, more than 60 quilters formed a business partnership called the Freedom Quilting Bee (active 1966–2012). This cooperative championed the vision and production of Gee’s Bend quilters in national art auctions, commercial partnerships, and museum exhibitions. Within three years, their ingenuity altered the local economy. Quilters were able to purchase washing machines, automobiles, and school supplies, in addition to telephones and electric lines.

With the support of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership, the BMA has purchased five quilts by Gee’s Bend artists including, Diamond in Square by Pearlie Irby Pettway (American, c. 1898–1955); Four-Block Strip by Loretta Pettway (American, b. 1942); Blocks and Strips by Nell Hall Williams (American, b. 1933); Chestnut Bud by Lucy Mingo (American, b. 1931); and Housetop by Lucy T. Pettway (American, 1921–2004). The recently acquired works will be on view in the Berman Textile Gallery in the American Wing.

Souls Grown Deep is dedicated to promoting the work of Gee’s Bend artists and African American artists from the South and supporting their communities by fostering economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement.

Curated by Brittany Luberda, Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts with Stella Hendricks, Souls Grown Deep Foundation Intern.

The exhibition is supported by PNC Bank and The Jean and Allan Berman Textile Endowment Fund.