The Freedom Quilting Bee
By Deborah Ellis
Vol. 10, No. 4, 1988, pp. 22-24
Both are stories of American business, but The Freedom Quilting Bee is as different from the current bestseller Trump: The Art of the Deal, as New York City is from Gees Bend, Alabama. While Trump’s book celebrates the triumph of individual success, Callahan’s story of a rural sewing cooperative emphasizes collective spirit. Success at the Freedom Quilting Bee is not in making millions, but in creating minimum-wage jobs for black women quilters. Callahan’s absorbing account, which relies primarily on extensive interviews with the quilters and outside supporters of the cooperative venture, shows how the Bee cooperative has formed and has been formed by those whose lives it has touched since it was established in 1966.
The Freedom Quilting Bee grew out of both the civil rights movement and the culture of the tiny, isolated Wilcox County, Alabama, communities of Gees Bend and Alberta. It was the civil rights movement that brought the Rev. Francis X. Walter, a white Episcopal priest and an Alabama native, down from New Jersey to head an interfaith civil rights project in west Alabama. Walter had left Alabama in 1961 after being refused work by the Bishop of Alabama because of Walter’s “interpretation of the gospel with regard to racism.” He came back to Alabama determined to help in a movement he realized was overdue and necessary.
In December 1965, a few days after his arrival, he was lost on a country road in Wilcox County and came across three handmade quilts airing on a clothesline. He soon learned that many women in Wilcox County quilted, and that their quilts were worked in a particularly vivid and distinctive style. Walter’s wife, a painter, observed that “what distinguished Gees Bend quilts from all other American quilts I had ever seen was their bold patterns. They had self-confidence….These were extroverted quilts….They had so little influence from outside that their quilting tradition was unique to that isolated bend of the Alabama River.”
Gees Bend is an all-black rural community known for its isolation, poverty, and unique cultural history. While the town lies just across the river from Camden, the county seat, on a peninsula formed by a curve in the Alabama River, there is neither bridge nor ferry service. Consequently, it is over forty miles to Camden or Selma. This remote area was settled in 1816 by Joseph Gee, a North Carolina planter, who bought most of the Bend and named it after himself. After Gee’s death the property passed to a relative, Mark Pettway. The current inhabitants are descendants of the slaves owned by Gee and Pettway and many Gee Benders still are named Pettway. Gees Bend’s isolation has “prevented insiders from leaving, and kept outsiders from coming in,” keeping the community all-black and culturally homogenous. In 1937 a writer noted that “Gees Bend is an Alabama Africa. There is no more concentrated and racially exclusive Negro population in any rural community in the South than in Gee’s Bend.”
For the past 140 years the same group of people have cultivated the land; only the land owners changed. In Callahan’s words, some say the black inhabitants “bought the land, then bought it again, then again, and again: first as slaves, than as tenants, next as test-tube members of a co-op (part of Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration), and finally as qualified individuals fulfilling a bargain with one more government group.”
People in Wilcox County were understandably suspicious of outsiders. Walter succeeded in getting local women to join his enterprise by offering them $10 per quilt-double what they previously earned. At first, the quilters worked in their own homes, and the quilts were sold at auctions in New York held by friends of Walter. The first sale, held in a New York photography studio on March 27, 1966, drew only forty people but they bought forty-two quilts at an average price of $27, and the Bee was on its way. Although the original idea had been to donate any profit to the Wilcox County SCLC, there was so much enthusiasm that it was decided instead to form a quilting cooperative; in March 1966 more than sixty quilters attended the first meeting of the new group. At the same time, Estelle Witherspoon, a Gees Bend woman who had heard about the “preacher going around buying quilts,” wrote Walter to volunteer her help “organizing ourselves to get these quilts sold.” The cooperative was incorporated in April 1966 with Estelle Witherspoon as president; she has led the cooperative ever since.
Those early auctions led to two important New York connections-Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, and the nationally prominent interior design firm of Parish Hadley. Vreeland and the Parish-Hadley firm were crucial to the financial growth of the Bee. With their backing, the Bee’s products sparked nationwide interest in quilts and patchwork, which was soon reflected in layouts in Vogue and House and Garden, and a promotion by Bloomingdale’s. The quilts struck a responsive chord partly because their bold patterns reflected the popular taste in abstract art: “The quilts had a dynamism resulting from their combination of geometry and brilliance in juxtaposition of primary colors…such opposition gave them a wonderful, almost Mondrian design.”
As the Bee’s business grew, the product naturally changed. The first quilts sold at the auction were made in designs handed down through generations, with names such as Star of Bethlehem (also “Stable Star”), Log Cabin, Climbing Vines, Stair Steps, Chestnut Bud, and Pig in a Pen. They were made from scraps of material, many of which were on a second life, having been cut from worn-out overalls, flour sacks or discarded dresses. As the Bee developed, and especially after a $20,000 order in 1968 from Bloomingdale’s, the need to standardize became apparent. In the beginning, the quilters did not even have tape measures; now, colors, fabrics, backings and patterns had to be standardized if higher levels of production were to be possible. In addition, as time went on the Bee expanded beyond quilts to make smaller items that were often profitable because they could be made by machine; for example, in 1972 the co-op entered into a long-term contract with Sears, Roebuck and Company to produce pillow shams.
In its first three years, members of the Bee sometimes gathered to work together in each others’ homes or in an old dog-trot tenant shack that had previously been Witherspoon’s home. The Bee’s acquisition of its own land and building in 1969 had both practical and symbolic significance for its status as a permanent institution. With
the help of foundation grants and volunteer labor, the Bee built the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Sewing Center. The 4,500-square foot masonry structure stands out in the rural countryside. “To some, the ultramodern facade…conjured thoughts of a giant spaceship from another galaxy that landed accidentally on a sparse stretch of Alabama cornfield.”
The success of the Bee must be evaluated in relative terms. In Wilcox County more than 40 percent of family incomes are below the poverty level. As one observer noted, “We’re talking about Wilcox County, where if there were no quilting bee, people would not be working, period.” The Bee has met its goal of enabling workers to have a stable job where they make at least prevailing minimum wage and can receive Social Security benefits. Its achievements also include, beyond the quality of its quilted products, the fact that it is the oldest handcraft co-op still in existence that originated with the civil rights movement. And as the quilters repeatedly voice throughout the book, there are many benefits to working in a co-operative where each member has a vote in decision making, where a daycare center is part of the operation, and where pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy hang on the wall.
In chronicling the story of the Freedom Fund Quilting Bee, Callahan tells a story that needed telling, and she tells it well. Exhaustively researched, the book goes beyond simply describing the growth of a business to document in detail the Bee’s relationship to the civil rights movement as well as its importance in reviving national interest in quilting. Callahan’s text is illustrated with many black-and-white and color photos of beautiful quilts. Her chapters at the end of the book on individual quilters are filled with extensive quotations in their own voices and are some of the strongest sections of the book. Less extensive use of quotes, however, would have benefited the earlier chapters, which are weighed down with extraneous observations of outside supporters and helpers of the Bee.
The Freedom Quilting Bee skillfully shows how the institution is itself like a quilt, an everyday object that in the hands of an artful maker transcends its utilitarian function and becomes an object of great beauty. The Freedom Quilting Bee is more than a successful small business; it is a symbol of how much can be achieved by people working together. Like a quilt, the Bee has endured.
Deborah Ellis works with the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU, and previously was a lawyer in Alabama.