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Celebrating Women’s History Month: The Gee’s Bend Quilters and Copyright

In 2019, the Copyright Office released a blog entry titled “Copyright Office Staff Finds Inspiration in African American Works.” It featured staff members inspired by poets, people they see every day, and the work of the Gee’s Bend quilters. Staff member Lauren Fasceski had seen a book come through the Copyright Office about the quilters, and she was fascinated by their work, especially a quilt made by Loretta Pettway from jeans and work pants. “It was an interesting story about her quilts,” Lauren told me. “I made my own pattern based on this quilt, because I really liked the pattern and the fact that it was made of old work clothes.”

The history of the Gee’s Bend (formally called Boykin, Alabama) goes back to the early nineteenth century. Joseph Gee of North Carolina established a cotton plantation on a plot of land on the Alabama River. In the mid-century, Mark H. Pettway bought the plantation, which included slaves. After emancipation, many freed slaves and their family members stayed on at the plantation as sharecroppers, using the Pettway name.

Sparse cabins and buildings on a plantation.

Cabins and outbuildings on the former Pettway plantation. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //www.loc.gov/item/2017775713/?loclr=blogcop

Through the early twentieth century, the isolated area faced many hardships, and a large portion of the population left by mid-century. But those who stayed behind persevered, even as ferry service to the area, which is located in a U-shape bend of the Alabama River, was terminated in the 1960s (it was not restored until 2006).

Those who stayed had very little, and they took to making quilts out of any fabric they could find out of necessity to stay warm. According to the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective, the quilts “transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks and fabric remnants to sophisticated design vessels of cultural survival and continuing portraits of the women’s identities.”

In 1941, Robert Sonkin, a New York City speech professor and folklore collector, documented the community. He produced music, recitations, discussions, and a Fourth of July program at Gee’s Bend. In the 1960s, the community, as well as the Freedom Quilting Bee in Alberta, Alabama, steadily gained attention for the Gee’s Bend Quilts.

Gee's Bend quilter working on a quilt.

Gee’s Bend Quilter. From the George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.  //www.loc.gov/item/2010639033/?loclr=blogcop

Today, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation provides support to the quilters. The foundation is “dedicated to promoting the work of African American artists from the South, and supporting their communities by fostering economic empowerment, racial and social justice, and educational advancement.” The quilters also have formed the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective, which runs quilting retreats in nearby Louisville, Mississippi.

Through educational outreach from these and other organizations, the women of Gee’s Bend have learned about copyright and their intellectual property rights. As the quilts became more famous in the early twenty-first century, the women were not seeing profits from sales and handshake licensing agreements. After a lawsuit against William Arnett, who brokered the reproduction rights of the women’s work, was resolved, the women were more aware of their rights. In 2018, quilter Mary Margaret Pettway told The Nation, “I sold quilts, I got paid for ’em. In that sense, I’m like Walmart. The bonus is the copyright, which we did not know we had, or we were entitled to.”

Colorful Gee's Bend quilt on display.

Quilt on display. From the George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. //www.loc.gov/item/2010639051/?loclr=blogcop

While the Gee’s Bend quilt patterns have been used in many other visual art forms, such as mugs, posters, and clothing, they also have inspired poems, plays, and musical works. The copyright records show registrations for the play Gee’s Bend by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, the musical work “Gee’s Bend Ferry” by Christ Sperling, and the book Gee’s Bend Pearls of Poetry by Litdred Mingo, just to name a few. Quilters also have registered the artwork in their quilts and other works, including the book The Gee’s Bend Experience, Volume 1 by Tinnie Dell Pettway. The motion picture and soundtrack for Gee’s Bend: From Quilt to Print are also registered by The Checkerboard Foundation, Inc., and Dwayne Dixon.

For more information about registering works of visual art, visit the Office’s Engage Your Creativity website.

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