As the Alabama River wends its way south and west, it meanders in a series of bends before emptying its muddy waters into Mobile Bay. Along the way, about 30 miles from Selma, one of those bends cuts deep into the land to form an isolated peninsula, which is filled by the hamlet of Gee’s Bend.

Gee’s Bend (now also known as Boykin) is home to generations of African-American families whose ancestors were brought to the area as slaves, back when the South was covered in plantations. The story of the people of Gee’s Bend is, therefore, similar to many stories in the South: one marked by inequality, institutionalized racism, and poverty. But the history of Gee’s Bend is also a story of community and creativity, the results of which stand as high-water marks in American art.

Quilts are the artistic treasures of Gee’s Bend. Benders, as locals are called, have been stitching these exquisite textiles since the early 1900s, or perhaps even earlier (some date the tradition back to Joseph Gee’s cotton plantation in the early 19th century). Eventually, as interest in the artworks spread, the quilts left the bend and traveled the country, becoming recognized as striking works of modern art featured in museums and galleries from Houston and New York to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Initially, of course, the quilters of Gee’s Bend—primarily African-American women—were not aiming for museum walls or international acclaim. Quilts were essential to daily life. In winter months, they were used to fight off the bitter cold in bed or to cover wood-slatted walls, thus keeping blustery drafts at bay. They were likewise spread out on the floor, where updrafts seeped in through creaky floorboards. Read more