Friday, March 23, 2007

Quilters And The Bee...

Gee’s Bend quilter Mensie Pettway, 67, displays the Bear’s Paw quilt she made for her son Robert Ali Pettway, who is stationed in Korea with the U.S. Air Force. She said her son left the quilt with her for safekeeping until he returned home. Staff photos Lucinda Coulter

Mar 19, 2007
Reviving The Bee
Quilters given $100,000 to repair famous craft building

By Lucinda Coulter Staff Writer of the Tuscaloosa News.

ALBERTA - Sixty-seven-year-old Mensie Pettway made her first Grandmother’s Dream quilt 55 years ago.She recalled her mother, Gee’s Bend quilter America Irby, teaching her how to piece it.“The blocks weren’t hitting each other," she said of her first attempts.The pattern is still her favorite of all the ones her mother taught her.Her mother’s work, those famous vivid quilts, dazzle museum visitors and were pieced in the same circles/sas those that are featured on U.S. Postal Service American Treasure stamps.

Relaxing on her front porch, Pettway said she regrets selling an especially renowned quilt, “One Patch," which now resides in a museum. She and her mother made it together 37 years ago at the Freedom Quilting Bee, four houses north of her home on Wilcox County Road 29.But more important than her wish to have the quilt is the hope that the building where she made it could be renovated.The bee helped her and other black women in the backwater communities of Alberta and Boykin earn a living from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s.

At its peak, the bee supported a daycare center and employed nearly 50 women.In March 1969, a building and 23 acres purchased by civil rights activists were dedicated to the bee. Eight families, including Mensie Pettway’s, bought lots and built houses where whites had evicted black families decades earlier.The quilters managed the business, selling quilts and other fabric wares to retailers like Bloomingdales and Sears. Despite competition from imported quilts, Pettway and others continued to quilt at the building until a tree fell on it in 2004 and damaged the roof.

Now Pettway’s dream to see the bee revived may come true.Work on a new roof and repairs on the abandoned building will begin within two months, said John Clyde Riggs, executive director of the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission. He said that $100,000 in grants from the Delta Regional Authority and the USDA Rural Development will pay for structural repairs, heating and cooling units, new lights and handicapped-accessible restrooms.

Longtime quilter and Boykin native Rennie Miller inspired support for the building’s revival.Miller, 69, moved to Rochester, N.Y., after high school but returned to her hometown 20 years ago. She worked as a secretary at the Freedom Quilting Bee.She also learned her ancestors’ art and craft.“My mother always quilted, and after I came there, that was the only employment," Miller said of the remote community. “And I wanted to learn."

Some quilters have plied their needles for both the Freedom Quilting Bee and the better-known Gee’s Bend collective. Atlanta art collector William Arnett and his son, Matt Arnett, have promoted the Gee’s Bend collective since the late 1990s through the nonprofit organization Tinwood Alliance.

Miller, who has never worked with the Gee’s Bend collective, singularly promotes the Freedom Quilting Bee to encourage self-sufficiency for her community and honor her predecessors’ fight for equality.She said that a revived bee could create five jobs.“For us, that would be a lot," Miller said of the group, which Martin Luther King Jr. once donated funds to. “I never wanted to let it go. When the black people got land and places for homes, it’s something they would cherish forever. Naturally, I wanted that piece of history to stay in the community."

For Pettway, the bee is a gateway to memories of her sole source of employment. She recalled cutting the pieces, sewing, hemming and embroidering the Freedom Quilting Bee insignia.“I just love sewing," she said. “After I’d come home from the bee, I’d sit up late at night."She made the first crazy quilt at the bee. She said she enjoyed using wool, in part, because it is softer and easier to work on than cotton.Two of Pettway’s daughters also quilt. Her 43-year-old daughter, Priscilla Hudson, lives next door to her mother. She said she remembers women sewing and singing in a circle.Both mother and daughter said they hope the bee can vitalize the town, which has few businesses and remains remote.

International fame has yet to improve the quilters’ livelihoods significantly, even as a popular play about the women’s resilience by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder is performed across Alabama. Dealers have sold some of the quilts for several thousand dollars each, but the quilters remain in poverty.

Tuscaloosa art collector Robert Cargo hopes that the quilters’ renown may help efforts to restore the bee’s industry.Cargo owns a folk art gallery, now managed by his daughter in Paoli, Pa., and has collected quilts for more than 50 years. Seven years ago, he began to sell and donate some of his 2,000 quilts and related pieces.But he plans to keep the Lone Star quilt he owns from Freedom Quilting Bee. The quilt was exhibited at Stillman College in 1969, and Cargo purchased it in 1981.A red-and-tan star stands out against a black background, the bright contrast a signature of the quilters’ work, Cargo said.“I think it’s one of the really exceptional groups of quilts made in this country," he said. “They hold their own in modern art, and it should be viewed as art."He said that, like American jazz, the early quilters improvised -- out of need -- and that the effect is beautiful.

Tuscaloosa author Nancy Callahan chronicled the quilters’ lives in “The Freedom Quilting Bee," published by the University of Alabama Press in 1987 and reprinted in 2005. She said the small group of women revived interest in quilted fabrics for use in interior decor.Callahan said they also gained economic independence for their families and were proud of doing so.“They learned to value themselves as human beings with self-esteem," she said of their dedication to the bee.Pettway agreed. “I’m hoping and praying that I’ll see it back before I leave this world," she said.

Reach Lucinda Coulter at or 205-722-0206.

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