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Sunday Report

Crossing Over

After 180 years of separation from their white neighbors, a stoic clan of slave descendants views a ferry as a vessel of hope--and doom.

August 22, 1999|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't until the close of the 19th century that the slaveholders who'd owned Gee's Bend since before the Civil War finally relinquished the land. On the third day of the 20th century, Gee's Bend became the property of Adrian Van de Graff, a Yale-educated racist who believed himself destined to remake the South as a whites-only enclave. Heavy debts plagued him, however, and he died before doing the harm he intended. Gee's Bend fell to his son, who sold it to the Roosevelt administration, which parsed all 10,000 acres back to the former slaves and their descendants.

At last, with the stroke of a pen, the owned of Gee's Bend became its owners. A giant plantation with a sordid past became a quilt of small farms, a patchwork of independent families. Those were days of hope and glory, when competition from mechanized farms was beyond imagining.

Now, the labor that defined Gee's Bend and bound Benders to one another has fallen away. Everyone keeps animals and tends a garden, but only a hardy few still reap and sow. Only a handful of fields still sprout corn, the wind rustling their stalks like a grown-up tousling a child's hair. When the Civil War freed them, Benders stayed put; when the civil rights movement freed them a second time, they flew, and farming went with them.

King told them to cross the river, and they crossed. That was the moment Mary Lee learned why every crossing is so fearful. Sometimes you can't cross back. There were 1,500 people in Gee's Bend the night King came. Half as many live here today, most Mary Lee's age and older, too old to farm. They get by on savings and Social Security. Their children work office jobs in Camden, or Selma, 45 miles northeast. Their grandchildren go to school or kill time on the bleachers across from the post office, awaiting their chance to go.

As farming has faded, so has quilting. Nothing shows the ebb of life more than the abandoned-looking Freedom Quilting Bee, up County Road 29. Mary Lee worked there. Lucy worked there. Every woman in Gee's Bend took a turn at the Quilting Bee, which briefly put Gee's Bend on the map.

It was founded in 1966, after a civil rights worker came marching through Wilcox County and happened upon an astonishing sight: three brilliant quilts fluttering from a clothesline outside a rude cabin, like battle flags of some rebel nation. The patterns were unique, the craftsmanship exquisite. No American quilts could quite compare, because these quilts weren't quite American.

Within weeks, great batches of Gee's Bend quilts were being shipped north, to fine museums and fancy department stores. A priest helped the women go into business for themselves, and a national hunger developed for all that their work-gnarled fingers could produce. Each day, the women of Gee's Bend formed their sewing circle, breathless at the possibility: For generations, their secret art--created in slavery, perfected in solitude--had kept them warm. Now it promised to set them free.

Then, overnight, white folks forgot about Gee's Bend again. At the same time, things began to vanish--the ferry, the farms, the farmers--business at the Quilting Bee ground to a halt. Only one of the original women joins the circle anymore. The rest have retired, left or died.

Some days, Mary Lee can feel it, all that Gee's Bend energy grown fainter, like Aola's pulse. Gee's Bend was never perfect, God knows, but it always had its busy women piecing quilts, its men walking tall behind their plows. If an isolated peninsula where three of every four people live below the poverty line can be called Paradise, then Gee's Bend was, because it was a family. Somehow, the family idyll that Gee's Bend represented has become fallow as the dirt.

And yet, the place remains holy to Mary Lee, and the dirt will forever be fertile with her forebears, who were sometimes buried where they fell, or swallowed by the river, to be deposited in the fields with the next spring freshet. While making her rounds, or strolling with Betty, or searching for one of her stray cows, Mary Lee is as likely to come across a forgotten slave grave as an abandoned well.

Her 26 acres of Gee's Bend came down to her from Rubin, who inherited them from his granddaddy, Patrick Bendolph, a mighty red oak of a man, and one of the patriarchs in Gee's Bend when Mary Lee was born. Pa-Petty, as Mary Lee called him, wore a pajama top for a shirt and sported a head of white hair straight as a stick, which unaccountably turned curly the day he died. His land, now deeded to Mary Lee's children, may be no more than pasture for her cows, but Mary Lee treasures every acre; it connects her to all the dead who tilled it and now lie mixed up in it.

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