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New York Foundation Records: the Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative

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Handmade quilts from Gee's Bend, Alabama are now well known and admired across the country, even internationally. Their vibrant, improvisational minimalist designs are often compared to the paintings of Mark Rothko and (early) Frank Stella. In 2002 The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman described the quilts as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." They have been the focus of touring museum exhibitions, including one held at New York's Whitney Museum in 2002-2003, and reproductions of the quilts in the form of coffee table monographs, postcards and calendars abound.

Jessie T. Pettway (b. 1929).  Bars and string-pieced columns, 1950s.  Cotton.  95 x 76 in.  Image courtesy of Tinwood Media.Jessie T. Pettway (b. 1929). Bars and string-pieced columns, 1950s. Cotton. 95 x 76 in. Image courtesy of Tinwood Media.Aside from their aesthetic beauty, though, these quilts have an important context and history, deeply rooted in the Civil Rights movement in Alabama and closely connected to the Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative. And — somewhat unexpectedly — the quilts have a connection to the New York Foundation, a philanthropic organization whose records [PDF] have recently come to the Library's Manuscripts and Archives division. Although the Foundation now focuses its support on grassroots organizations in New York City, it actively supported such organizations in the American South as the Civil Rights movement unfolded.

The Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative, organized in 1965 by 150 black women in rural Alabama who hoped to transform their sewing abilities into much-needed income, was led by Callie Young and Estelle Witherspoon and assisted by a white Episcopal priest, the Reverend Francis X. Walter (Director of the Selma Inter-Religious Project). Walter had become enamored of their quilts when he spied three of them hanging on a clothesline while driving around lost in the vicinity of Possum Bend, and he helped market the quilts and advocate for the Cooperative. In a grant proposal submitted to the New York Foundation in 1969, Walter explained, "Many quilters and their families have been active in Civil Rights Movements. For some this has meant eviction from house and land, foreclosure of loans and the end of credit. These burdens along with the automation of cotton farming have resulted in the formation of a number of co-op experiments as a means of subsistence."

The Foundation saw the proposal's merits and awarded $5,000 to the Freedom Quilting Bee in 1967, $5,000 more in 1968, and $2,500 more in 1971.

In this letter of gratitude, Reverend Walter wrote: "Please accept the thanks of myself and the officers and board of the cooperative. We know of no more hopeful continuation of the Civil Rights Movement in the rural South than the many efforts of cooperative self-help being undertaken. The sense of dignity these organizations foster, the leadership skills they engender, and the sense of participation in our country that they foster, all even apart from the financial benefits offered, make them worthy objects of your trust and investment."

Much of the New York Foundation's grant to the Cooperative was used towards the construction of a new sewing building, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Sewing Center. Prior to its construction, the quilters worked in small, cramped cabins such as the one pictured here.

Stanley Selengut, a New Yorker hired as the Freedom Quilting Bee's industrial development consultant, asked the Foundation's John Heyman to attend the groundbreaking for the building, explaining that the "ladies in the co-op" were planning to "throw the best party that Gees Bend ever saw. The whole community is so excited that, if they have to, they'll build the building with their bare hands." Selgenut continued: "I've never seen a community so determined to start working for something that will shape their own destiny."

Although Heyman did not attend the groundbreaking, The New Yorker's Calvin Trillin did, and he wrote about it and the Freedom Bee quilters in the magazine's March 22, 1969 issue. The quilts caught others' attention, including the painter Lee Krasner, and they were exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution, featured in Life magazine, and sold at Bloomingdale's. The Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative continues to exist, and a book available at the Library tells its tale more completely.

The New York Foundation sponsored other cooperatives in the South, including a grant to the Commission on Religion in Appalachia in 1971 which provided $7,500 towards rabbit and feeder pig cooperatives in Breathitt County, Kentucky. With the aims of combating poverty and creating community, these cooperatives — although quite different in membership and product from the Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative — also enabled rural citizens of the South to support themselves financially by supporting their own skills and aptitudes. The Foundation called it "grassroots human development."

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