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The Quilters of Gee's Bend

Lucy Mingo started working in the fields when she was 6 — picking cotton, corn, peas and okra under the hot Alabama sun. She raised 10 children, fought for civil rights, crossed the Pettus Bridge in the march to Montgomery.

Now, there she was, Lucy Mingo at 78, waving from the back of a pickup truck in Ashland's Fourth of July parade.

"I'm from Alabama," she called to the crowds. "Come up close and read our sign. See the real ladies what do the quilting!"

Lucy Mingo has made some 2,000 quilts in her lifetime. So far. Lucy and six other women from Gee's Bend, Ala., were in Ashland for the opening of an exhibit of their work at the Schneider Museum of Art. Part of a collective of 50 African American quilt makers, their work has been exhibited in museums and galleries since 2002.

"My mother, my relatives had quilts in the first show," says Loretta Bennett, 48. "It was awesome to see their quilts on the wall and all the people looking. I was just so happy for them. It just brought tears to my eyes."

To understand their accomplishments and how far they've come, you need to understand where they started and what they've endured.

You need to understand the history of a place called Gee's Bend, where a sharp turn in the Alabama River all but surrounds the small peninsula where these women live.

In tiny Gee's Bend, post-plantation life lingered longer than anywhere else in the South.

Descendants of slaves who worked the Pettway plantation stayed on for generations, still working the fields for a small share of the crop.

Life remained hard for blacks in the South, but life stayed harsher longer for folks in Gee's Bend. It was as if the Great Depression landed there and took up permanent residence. Phones, lights and running water didn't come to their homes until the 1970s.

"Mama cooked in the fireplace," Revil Mosely, 74, recalls. "We drank river water ... lived in a house see sky at nighttime."

China Pettway, 57, also remembers those leaky roofs. "When it rained we had one good spot, one good corner to get in. All of us pile everything up there. Catch rain with buckets, pans and frying pans."

They all worked the fields as children, attending school only on rainy days. "We all missed school," says Loretta. "The teachers — they knew. We was all in the same boat."

Mary Ann Pettway, 52, adds, "Mama was teaching us at home. She used a cardboard box and got a coal out of the fireplace and mark on the box to teach us our alphabet, to teach us how to read and write."

Surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River, it was hard to leave Gee's Bend. There was an unreliable ferry or you could take the long way to town on an unpaved road.

The community stayed small, poor and isolated, so the people of Gee's Bend relied on themselves and on each other. The women had to make quilts; that's how they kept their families warm.

The tops of their quilts were miracles of "making do," pieced together from worn denim overalls and cotton work shirts, softened and faded from wear and tear in the fields. It was a lucky day when you got an old cotton sack to add to your quilt.

Their quilts were lined with gritty leftover lint from the cotton gin. When Lucy describes thrashing out the seeds and dirt, her voice takes on a remembered rhythm that the other women join in. "You beat it and beat it and beat it again. Then you beat it and beat it and beat it again. Hard work, but when we got done, those quilts was warm and they last a long time."

The women of Gee's Bend often sing while they quilt, soulful spiritual songs that meander around the edges of the notes. Their designs, too, wander around the realms of traditional quilting. Like the gospel music that surrounds and inspires them, their artwork is improvisational, unpredictable and deceptively simple.

Life moved along glacially in Gee's Bend until two events helped to change their world; the civil rights movement and the discovery of their quilts.

The women speak of the civil rights days with pride, pain and forgiveness. Tough times got even tougher then. To impede voter registration, the county took away ferry service. White landlords "put off" black tenants who registered to vote or marched for freedom.

Lucy remembers, "They use tear gas, bullwhips, run over people with cars. People treated us so mean, but I don't care how bad they treated us. I stayed in the march 'cause I really wanted to get my right to vote."

The women marched. Many of them were jailed. The prisons released convicts to make room for the marchers. They weren't frightened for themselves, but for their families. Loretta recalls, "The one time I can remember being scared was when Mama got locked up."

Revil still remembers her unsuccessful attempt to bring food to the prison. "You got my daughter and son in there. It's my grandbaby here. I come to feed my children."

Yet, their words are forgiving. "We wasn't taught to hate," says Louisiana Bendolph, 48. "Our parents didn't talk about it. They didn't talk about being beaten. They shielded us away from it."

Life got a little better, but it took quilts to save Gee's Bend. It turns out that, while they were making do and making quilts, they were also making art. They may have been using scraps and rags, but the women made choices as bold and beautiful as any artist.

Art collector Will Arnett and his son, Matt, were instrumental in discovering, redefining and exhibiting their work. Initially, though, the women were dubious about strange white men buying "raggedy old quilts."

Matt Arnett recalls, "Dad and I were outsiders making pronouncements. We were saying this is art. 'ART?' We want to do a book about you. 'ABOUT US?' We want to take you to museums. Most of them had never been to one."

Since then, their quilts have become recognized as works of modern art. Newsweek called them equal to "just about any abstract painting made by any trained artist living in one of the world's great cities."

The New York Times described them as "miraculous works of modern art."

Today, Gee's Bend quilts and prints hang alongside the works of well-known artists, and fine art prints are made from some of their smaller quilts, but when asked whether they feel like artists, the women of Gee's Bend answer with a long, drawn-out "noooo."

"But," admits Louisiana Bendolph, "when I go to our exhibits and see our quilts on the wall, I realize I'm part of something bigger. I'm learning how to use that word 'pride,' to know that some things I do are worthy of being proud."

Loretta Bennett knows that feeling. She recently made a quilt for her son. "He just lay it proudly on his bed. He's very proud that his mother, father and grandmother come from a community that's all famous now."

Pride is now a part of Gee's Bend. Gratitude always has been. "We don't feel sorry for ourselves," says Revil. "We been blessed. We are blessed."

Ask Lucy Mingo whether she enjoyed the Ashland parade. "Oh, yes," says Lucy. "I had me a time today!"

But, then, Lucy says that about most every day.

Katherine Hannon is a freelance writer living in Medford.

The Quilters of Gee's Bend