Gee’s Bend – officially called Boykin – is a small enclave of just over 200 people, nestled in a bend in the Alabama River. Surrounded by water on three sides, there is only one road and a ferry that runs several times a day. Many residents are descendants of slaves from the former Pettway Plantation, and they still share Pettway as a surname.
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, improvised look.
In the late 90’s an art dealer named Bill Arnett visited Gee’s Bend and was captivated by the art he saw. Another master quilter, Mary Margaret Pettway, remembers when this stranger showed up in town to buy her mother’s quilts.