A Deeper South
The tiny hamlet of Boykin, Alabama sits on a bend in the Alabama River, across from the town of Camden. Boykin is its official name, but it is still known as Gee’s Bend, after the cotton plantation established here by Joseph Gee in 1816. The population of Gee’s Bend is roughly 750 — entirely African-American, and mostly descendants of enslaved people on Gee’s plantation. All around Gee’s Bend are painted murals depicting designs for quilts created by the women of the town, who have been making quilts in a distinctive style for generations. In 2006, The United States Postal Service released a series of stamps featuring the Quilters of Gee’s Bend. The Whitney Museum in New York held an exhibition of some of the quilts in 2002. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times described them as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee (if you think I’m wildly exaggerating, see the show) 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.” I do not think Kimmelman was exaggerating.
Access to the much larger city of Camden (pop. 2560), the seat of Wilcox County, is by a ferry across the Alabama River. Until the Civil Rights Movement, no black person was registered to vote in Wilcox County. In the early 1960’s, citizens of Gee’s Bend took the ferry to Camden to register to vote, until Sherriff Lummie Jenkins, who ran Wilcox County from 1939 to 1971, and the ruling powers in Camden discontinued the ferry service, forcing the people of Gee’s Bend to make a 2-hour drive to Camden. According to a Pulitzer-Prize-winning article in the Los Angeles Times by J. R. Moehringer, Sherriff Lummie was heard to say, “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black.” #adeepersouth #roadsideamerica #americanart #africanamericanart #folkart #culturecare #geesbend #racism #southernhistory #civilrights #alabamahistory #civilrightsmovement #quiltersofgeesbend #southernculture #publicart #blackhistory @bittersoutherner @southernstudies @southerncultures @sohporalhistory@umsouthdoc
There is stunning art and beauty in Boykin; it lives on within a strong tradition led by descendants of enslaved people.
There is another tradition that lives on, one this project seeks to help end. It’s carried on by people who aren’t descendants of enslaved people when we avoid even basic study of the very visible track record of violence, disenfranchisement, and active disregard of those artists and others by white people in power.
Please consider following and joining the fight to understand more deeply, together.
Long-form writing & soon, images from 35mm film: candler.ink