Alabama—Crossing Over, African-Americans, Descendants of Slaves

Patchwork Quilt, Bendolph, Gee's Bend, AL

The quilt in the photo was one of bed covers featured in the 2006 De Young Museum exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. All the quilts in the exhibit were hand-made by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Many of the quilters are descended from the slaves of the former Pettway plantation and bear the last name Pettway.

Gee’s Bend is a rural community on the Alabama River about 30 miles Southwest of Selma. A girl who lives there describes her home:

“I mean to tell you, there ain’t noplace in the world like Gee’s Bend. For one thing, you can’t find it. It’s like a little island sitting just about in the middle of the state of Alabama. Only instead of ocean water, it’s caught up on three sides by a curve in the Alabama River. Ain’t noplace in Gee’s Bend you can’t get to by setting one foot after another into that orange dirt that likes to settle right between your toes. I reckon the hard part is how once you’re in Gee’s Bend, it ain’t that easy to get out.”
— Ludelphia Bennett, Age 10

Ludelphia Bennett is the fictional narrator of Birmingham author Irene Latham’s debut novel Leaving Gee’s Bend, which was published on Jan. 7th, 2010. The novel was set in the Great Depression of the 30’s in Wilcox county Alabama.

Times were tough in depression era Gee’s Bend. The price of cotton dropped to 5 cents a pound (At one time it was 40 cents/pound), and food is in short supply. There was no money to pay a schoolteacher and there was a mid-wife, faith healer serving as the only doctor in the community.

When Ludelphia’s mama came down with pneumonia, it seemed like the girl’s world was coming to an end. Desperate to help her mama she decided to cross over to Camden and get a doctor. Camden was 6 miles away by ferry across the rain-swollen Alabama River. She could walk that far, if there were no problems.

Of course, there were problems, but Ludelphia got to Camden where she discovered that some white people are sympathetic, but others are hostile and mean-spirited. The story of her trials and adventures make for exciting, fast-paced reading. Irene Latham is a good storyteller. This is perfect book to read to a young person unfamiliar with the lives of Alabama’s Black sharecroppers in the years before the Civil Rights Act was made law.

Gee’s Bend is on the Alabama River thirty miles southwest of Selma, where a horseshoe-shaped turn of the river encloses about a thousand acres of rich black farmland that has been worked by African/American sharecroppers since their ancestors were freed from slavery.

The Gee's Bend Ferry

A cable ferry linked Gee’s Bend with the county seat Camden until the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, but when Blacks attempted to register to vote in Camden the county took the ferry out of service.  Service was eventually restored in 2006, fifty years later. Changes happen slowly in Gee’s Bend.

Today, a motorized ferry crosses the river to land at Gee’s Bend County Park. It’s a short walk from there to the Boykin (Gee’s Bend) Post Office. If you visit, be sure to go by the Friendship Baptist Church, which is the center of community life. The Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective is on the way also. Just like Ludelphia Bennett said, it’s easy to walk around Gee’s Bend.

Gee's Bend Quilters Cooperative

If you visit the Quilters Collective you will notice that many quilters are named Pettway (Allie, Annette, Arionzia, Belinda, China, Creola, Essie, Jessie, Leola, Linda, Lola, Lorraine, Lucy, Luella, Marillia, Mensie, Qunnie, and Rita Mae Allie, Annette, Arionzia, Belinda, China, Creola, Essie, Jessie, Leola, Linda, Lola, Lorraine, Lucy, Luella, Marillia, Mensie, Qunnie, and Rita Mae are listed on the Collective’s web site). The Pettway’s are all descended from former slaves of the Pettway plantation. Their ancestors took the plantation name when they were freed after the Civil War.

There are also quilters named Bennett on the Collective’s roster. Is it just coincidence that the young narrator of Irene Latham’s novel is named Ludelphia Bennett?

The Civil War came and went in Gee’s Bend—slaves became sharecroppers, there was more personal freedom, but poverty and hardship still ruled. For over a 100 years Whites stayed in Camden while the descendants of the slaves pursued their fortune in Gee’s Bend.

In the early 30s a mob from Camden raided Gee’s Bend to foreclose on chattel liens owed by the tenant farmers. The mob took everything: pots, pans, bedding, and furniture, even the chickens were repossessed. The town was left destitute, unable to feed themselves as winter approached. Fortunately, President Roosevelt and the Red Cross came to the aid of Gee’s Bend to prevent starvation, and famine.

Gee's Bend, 1937 WPA Photo, Rothstein.

The photographer Arthur Rothstein was sent by the WPA in 1937 to take pictures of tenant farmers. His stark images showed daily life in Gee’s Bend and brought nationwide attention to the plight of sharecroppers throughout the South.

In August of 1999 the LA Times published a feature on the community that won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2000. The Pulitzer citation to the writer of the feature, J.R. Moehringer, reads as follows:

“… for his portrait of Gee’s Bend, an isolated river community in Alabama where many descendants of slaves live, and how a proposed ferry to the mainland might change it.”

The opening chapter of Moehringer’s feature is called Mary Lee’s Vision. It begins as follows:

GEE’S BEND, Ala. — CHAPTER 1 / Mary Lee’s Vision

After 180 years of separation from their white neighbors, a stoic clan of slave descendants views a ferry as a vessel of hope–and doom.

She hopes the ferry won’t come, but if it does, she’ll climb aboard. She’ll tremble as she steps off the landing because she can’t swim, and she can’t forget the many times she’s crossed this ugly brown river only to meet more ugliness on the other side.

But fear has never beaten Mary Lee Bendolph, and no river can stop her. She’ll board that ferry, if it comes, because something tells her she must, and because all the people she loves most will board with her, and because if there’s one thing she’s learned in her difficult life, it’s this:

When the time comes to cross your river, you don’t ask questions. You cross.

It won’t look all that dramatic, just a new ferry taking a 63-year-old great-grandmother and her cousins across a Coca-Cola-colored river. But in this damp cellar of the Deep South, where the river has separated blacks and whites for 180 years, where even the living and the dead are less divided than the black and white towns camped on opposite shores, a new ferry will be like the river itself: more than it looks.

It should surprise no one that the name Bendolph appears in the Gee’s Bend Cooperative’s list of quilters. The tradition continues.

You can find Gee’s Bend easily on an Alabama Map. Just search for “Gees Bend Park”.

Black History Month honors people and events in the history of the African diaspora. It is celebrated in the United States and Canada in February, chosen because of the birthdays of two Americans who greatly influenced the lives and social condition of African-Americans: former President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.

The Tinwood Alliance of Atlanta, GA has been instrumental in promoting and preserving the quilts of Gee’s Bend. Visit their website, blog or Facebook page for more information.

Week 7-2012: Leaving Gee’s Bend, Irene Latham (2010).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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