Lauren Whitley

Over many generations, the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a rural, majority Black community, have made quilts with remarkable innovation and creativity. Irene Williams’s vote quilt is one powerful example. Williams pieced together strips of red, white, and blue fabric printed with the word vote, arranging them in a novel variation of the Log Cabin pattern, called a Housetop, which was a favorite in Gee’s Bend. Although she came from a community of exceptional quilters, Williams worked mostly alone, as she lived in a remote neighborhood on the outskirts of Gee’s Bend. Her solitary practice fueled her singular vision and unique approach. In this quilt, she deftly manipulated materials she had at hand, balancing the “vote” fabric with blocks of red, white, blue, and checked cloth. The strips meander in free-form lines that give movement and energy to the graphic print. The result is a complex collage, a visual feast of rhythm and color.

Detail image of a red, white, and blue quilt with contrasting strips and blocks of fabric.
Irene Williams, vote quilt (detail), 1975. Printed cotton plain weave, pieced. Museum purchase with funds from the Frank B. Bemis Fund, the Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, and Gallery Instructor 50th Anniversary Fund to support The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection, and gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the collection of Vanessa Vadim. © 2020 Estate of Irene Williams / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Williams created the quilt in 1975, a year before the United States celebrated its bicentennial. It is not only an artistic masterwork but also a strong social commentary—a reminder that voting rights remained at the forefront of consciousness in Williams’s small community. During the 1960s, Gee’s Bend was instrumental in the fight for voting rights and experienced the struggle in ways that were both uplifting and painful. To register to vote, residents had to travel by ferry across the Alabama River to Camden. In 1962, white residents cut off the community by terminating the ferry service. Despite the fear of violence and reprisals, Gee’s Benders persevered, often carpooling to make the one-hour drive to Camden to register. Fortunately, because of Federal Government intervention in the 1930s, many Gee’s Bend residents owned their homes and were able to avoid eviction by white landlords as a result of their activism, the fate of many other African Americans during the Civil Rights era.

In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Wilcox County, Alabama, to speak to a crowd gathered at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. That same year, several Gee’s Bend residents joined King in marching from Selma to Montgomery. We don’t know whether Irene Williams participated in the marches, but voting rights were clearly still on her mind in 1975 when she created this dynamic quilt. Through her needlework, Williams affirmed that only by making our voices heard can we move toward greater understanding and create change.

Today, Gee’s Bend continues to engage with social issues and activism. In the wake of COVID-19, Gee’s Bend quilters have applied their creative sewing skills to making masks for residents of their community. And a new Resource Center—established with the help of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which promotes the work of Black artists from the South—provides Gee’s Benders assistance with voter registration and census forms. Like their rich tradition and distinctive style of quilting, today’s Gee’s Bend residents are continuing to make their community’s voice heard and advocating for change through engagement and active participation.

Author

Lauren Whitley is senior curator, Textile and Fashion Arts.