50 in 50: Alabama

These quilts...represent a tradition that has been passed on for a number of generations in a very small area in America, in Gee's Bend, Alabama. The quilts reflect the history of that area and of this country...[they ask us to] think about genius...where does it reside? --Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, The Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend

Some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South in the form of women, descendants of slaves when Gee's Bend was a plantation. --Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times

Work Clothes Quilt with Center Medallion Strips, Annie Mae Young, 1976, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I lived in a log-cabin house with about twelve of us children. We used to plaster the house walls with magazines and used to make our sheets out of fertilizer sacks...My daddy brought me some cloth from Camden where they was giving it away...I started cutting and piecing cloth when I was about thirteen, fourteen...I like big pieces and long strips...I liked to sew them however they be. I work it out, study the way to make it, get it to be right, kind of like working a puzzle. --Annie Mae Young (1928-2012)

Alabama-made socks. That's what this post was supposed to be about. As rain pelts a once-thirsty California, filling our creeks, blanketing our mountains white, chilling our feet, I asked myself: what better time to write about socks?

Yes, what better time to share the story of realtor-turned-sock-artisan Gina Locklear who, in 2015, received Martha Stewart's coveted American-Made award? A few months later the New York Times crowned Gina, 36, the Sock Queen of Alabama. Perfect title for an entrepreneur raised in Fort Payne, Alabama, a place once called "the Sock Capital of the World." And for decades, Fort Payne happily kept 300 knitting mills humming and half the population employed, producing one in eight pairs of athletic socks sold globally.

Here--at least this was my original plan--I would have readers think about how something seemingly small and insignificant--the production of a pair of socks--could be life-sustaining. Growing up, Gina and her sister, Emily, would head to their parents' mill--called Emi-G Knitting--after school to sort socks and play in the bins. Emi-G Knitting's long-standing deal to make, among other things, Russell Athletic's cushioned socks paid for the family's home, cars and the girls' college educations. Imagine that. All from socks.

But by the mid-2000s, everything changed. "Cheap foreign labor and free-trade agreements made the town a loser in the game of global economics," the New York Times reports. "Seemingly overnight the mills closed, and the new Fort Payne became a town in China called Datang." Gina's father said it was "like a vacuum cleaner pulled all the people out of town." Today only seven mills remain.

I'd wrap-up this short, simple post by explaining that in 2008, Gina's "aha" moment struck. Quitting real estate (which she'd never really enjoyed), she instead poured all her energy into the creation of zkano, her unique, colorful brand of 100 percent American-made sustainable organic cotton socks. She rescued her parents' mill from extinction and saved jobs. And, although she works 24/7, she loves what she's doing.

Great story. Buh-bye Alabama, it's been fun, right?

But on MLK Day, staring at the post written above, I couldn't seem to click "publish" and move on. How could I feature an Alabama-made product on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and ignore MLK and his role in the Civil Rights Movement in that very state? I again searched amazon.com (as if Jeff Bezos has all the answers) for "products made in Alabama," not really sure why that would help. Up popped a book called The Quilts of Gee's Bend. And a boxed set of notecards called Gee's Bend: The Art of the Quilt. Gee's what? Quilts? Again? Why?

Sometimes it's best not to question why life tosses best-laid-plans aside, putting unplanned things in your path. Best not to fight it. Just go with the flow. That's what Gee's Bend quilter Mary Lee Bendolph once said: "I just go with the flow. Whatever comes in my mind to do, I just do it." Snapping this photo of a creek near my house, I pictured Mary Lee Bendolph walking along the banks of the mile-wide, 60-foot deep Alabama River that curves like a horseshoe and winds its way around tiny Gee's Bend (population in 2011: 275).

Just go with the flow.

Maybe you're already familiar with the church-going, gospel-humming women of Gee's Bend and their miraculous quilts. I knew nothing about them. But soon there I was, immersed in all things Gee's Bend. I found The Quilts of Gee's Bend at my local library. Two days later--thanks to Amazon Prime--Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's short, powerful play, Gee's Bend, arrived on my doorstep. Then came the beautiful notecards. Rain pounding on the roof, head throbbing from the flu, I sipped tea and watched two mesmerizing, uplifting documentaries: The Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend and The Quilts of Gee's Bend. Next I read Crossing Over, a 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times feature that tells the history of Gee's Bend through the eyes of quilter Mary Lee Bendolph. She recalls poverty, bigotry and the time Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled all the way to Gee's Bend on a cold February night, three weeks before Bloody Sunday: "Tears filled his eyes as he shouted, 'I come over here to Gee's Bend to tell you--you are somebody.'"

She'd never heard that before. None of the residents of Gee's Bend had.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit changed "Benders" lives forever. They began making the long journey from Gee's Bend into segregated Camden and beyond, to again see Dr. King. Prior to the 1960s, a Huck Finn-type ferry service allowed them to leave Gee's Bend, crossing the Alabama River into all-white Camden (population 1,000). But to push back against the Civil Rights Movement and deny Benders their legal voting rights, Camden's Sheriff Lummie shut the ferry down. From Crossing Over: "We didn't close the ferry because they were black,' Sheriff Lummie was rumored to have said. 'We closed it because they forgot they were black.'"

Undaunted, Mary Lee and her neighbors set out on horseback or foot, however long it took, to see Reverend King, register to vote, and maybe even defy one of the Jim Crow laws, drinking from the whites-only water fountains. "'I loved to go over there,' Mary Lee says, giggling. 'Just so I could tell the white folks, and Mr. Lummie, 'You can't jail us all.'"

Indeed, many were tossed into prison. Others lost their jobs. Some lost their houses. But Dr. King had taught them not to give up, to believe in themselves. And when Martin Luther King Jr. died, the horses from Gee's Bend pulled his casket in the funeral procession.

mlk funeral

Throughout it all, Mary Lee Bendolph and the multi-generational women of Gee's Bend sewed quilts. When farming failed, for many years they mass-produced quilts for large department stores like Bloomingdale's. They didn't care for that type of assembly-line-style of quilting. They preferred using their memories, their old clothes, the shapes of the windows and doors and colors of the ceilings, the world that surrounded them and reflected their lives. These were the quilts that soared. That originated in their souls. They didn't realize they were creating art that would, some day, be compared to Matisse and Klee.

In 1998, William Arnett, a collector and curator of African-American vernacular art, came across a photo in Roland Freeman's 1996 book, "A Communion of Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories." A woman named Annie Mae Young, in Gee's Bend, stood next to a quilt-covered woodpile. Quilts were routinely burned in Gee's bend to keep the mosquitoes away. One quilt in that picture so impressed Arnett that he went door to door all over Gee's Bend until he finally found Annie Mae Young.

Annie Mae Young with Quilts. From Roland Freeman's 1996 book, A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories

At first, Annie Mae wasn't sure if she'd burned the quilt or not. A few days later she found it (it's in picture above and at the top of this post). Arnett said he'd like to buy it. Annie Mae said he could have it for nothing. He insisted on buying several of the quilts for a few thousand dollars. "Word quickly spread," writes Amei Wallach in Smithsonian Magazine, "that there was a crazy white man in Gee’s Bend paying good money for the raggedy old quilts.”

And so began a mission for Bill Arnett that continues to this day through his (and his two sons') tireless work at the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Arnett, who is considered family in Gee's Bend, shepherded the quilts, saved them from the ash heap, introduced them to curators at major museums throughout the United States. Eventually everyone agreed: these were magnificent works of authentically, uniquely American art.

According to a recent story in the Kansas City Star, about two dozen women on Gee’s Bend continue quilting. The quilting co-op they belong to typically has between 200 and 300 quilts in stock, available for sale. “Oh, they expensive, I can tell you that right now,” [Gee's Bend quilter] Mary Ann Pettway said. “Prices range from $200 for a wall-hanger. And a twin to queen or king, they’re $900 and up,” she said, adding that one quilt sold for $27,000. “But then someone told me that if Picasso can sell a piece of his work for $35,000 (sic), why can’t I?"

Sounds like the quilters of Gee's Bend have finally, truly crossed the river, from isolation and segregation to the kind of America we all strive for--land of unfettered opportunity, of free enterprise, of free expression; a place where we'd like to think everyone has an equal shot at a our version of royalty, whether you are Gina Locklear, Sock Queen of Alabama or Mary Lee Bendolph, Queen of Gee's Bend.

Next up: Alaska.

Enjoy your week!