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Draft Article by Kyes Stephens
Alabama Online Encyclopedia

The community of Gee's Bend (whose official name is Boykin) is situated in Wilcox County in West Alabama in the bend of the Alabama River. Directly across the river from Camden, and southeast of Selma, Gee's Bend has one road into the community. Gee's Bend is in the Black Belt region of Alabama (an area that draws its name from the soil and the race of the predominant inhabitants).

The majority of Native Americans living in Alabama prior to European infiltration were of the Creek Federation. Present day Wilcox County was included. It is believed that Hernando DeSoto came through the area on his exploration.

All inhabitants of the state had tendencies to create communities along the many rivers of the state, so Gee's Bend is not unique as a river community. Joseph Gee, a large landowner from Halifax County in North Carolina, came to fertile land in the bend of the river in 1816 to grow cotton. He brought 18 enslaved blacks with him and established a plantation. When he died, he left 47 enslaved blacks and his estate to two of his nephews, Sterling and Charles Gee.

In 1845 the Gee brothers sold the plantation to a relative, Mark H. Pettway. That family name remains predominant in Wilcox County. After emancipation the freed black population stayed on the plantation and worked as sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

The Pettway family held the land until 1895 when they sold to it Adrian Sebastian Van de Graaff, an attorney from Tuscaloosa. But Van de Graaff never ran the cotton plantation there; a family relative was the overseer.

During the 1930s, Gee's Bend saw a considerable shift in their community. A merchant who had given credit to the families of the Bend died, and his family collected on debts owed to him in a most vicious way. The families watched as all their food, animals, tools and seed were taken away. Had it not been for the Red Cross rations distributed, and the de Graaff's not charging rent, the community might have fallen. The de Graaff family sold their land to the Federal Government and the Farm Security Administration became involved and set up Gee's Bend Farms, Inc.-a pilot project that was a cooperative based program to help sustain the inhabitants. The government built "Roosevelt" houses and sold tracks of land to the families of the bend, thus giving the African American population control over the land. The community was also the subject of several FSA photographers, including Dorothea Lange.

But when the second half of the Depression hit, combined with the crippling effects of mechanization on the small farmer, Gee's Bend saw its first major exodus of its community, and the severe decline of monetary comfort in the area. But most stayed on their land, because it belonged to them, and that was atypical for Alabama.

In 1949, a U.S. Post Office was established in Gee's Bend, and the name was changed to Boykin, an unwelcome change to the community. Again in 1962, outsiders forced another change on the community when a dam on the Alabama River flooded thousands of acres of the most fertile land. But still, Gee's Bend's aura pulled people in. In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. was scheduled to visit the Bend.

In the 1960s, 70s, 90s, and in the present, the community of Gee's Bend, along with the Freedom Quilting Bee in neighboring Alberta, gained a significant amount of national attention for the quilts produced there. In the late 1990s, a folk art collector from Atlanta, Georgia, after seeing a photograph made by Roland Freeman of a quilt draped over a wood pile, went to the region and bought hundreds of quilts. The pieces have been heralded as brilliant pieces of modern art.

While there continues to be a solid population living in Gee's Bend today, there is no significant industry, which sets up challenges economically for its inhabitants. But it would take more than economic hardship to make this steadfast and culturally rich community fall.

The collection of quilts from Gee's Bend was first shown at the Houston Museum of Art, before traveling to the Whitney Museum in New York, where high-acclaim continued to flow regarding the quilts. But the phenomena with these quilts is not without criticism. The show takes the women and the quilts out of the context of west Alabama, and has established serious academic discussions on the definition of art.

Other pertinent subjects:

The Freedom Quilting Bee Sharecropping and Tenancy New Deal Programs in Alabama Alabama Rivers


Quilt images courtesy of Tinwood Media | All other photographs courtesy Jim Peppler, 1966, all rights reserved