The Freedom Quilting Bee

by Nancy Callahan

In December 1965, the year of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Francis X.Walter, a white Episcopal priest and newly appointed head of an Alabama civil rights project, was driving south of Selma through desperately poor Wilcox Country to document cases of whites harassing blacks involved in the rights movement. Finding himself at the Alabama River in a tiny palace called Possum Bend, Father Walter noticed a cabin clothesline from which were hanging three magnificent quilts. Unlike any he had ever seen, they were of strong, hold colors in original, of-art patterns-the same art style then fashionable not only in Possum Bend but also in New York and other cultural centers. Immediately, father Walter conceived the idea that the black women of Wilcox Country could increase their involvement in civil rights by mobilizing to sell patchwork quilts. Within weeks, their dream took on life, other form of the Freedom Quilting Bee, a hand craft cooperative acclaimed across the nation.

During the late 1960s, the Freedom Quilting Bee captured the energies and imagination of the New York world of fashion and interior design, sparking a nationwide revival of interest in patchwork quilts. The quilters began to earn significant monetary supplements to their family incomes, which had been averaging less than $1,000 a year.

Formerly field hands with fingers callused by the lifelong chopping of cotton, the Freedom quilters became skilled artisans and self-styled business executives who, with determination, vision, and pride, began collectively to keep aflame an artistic endeavor central to the black culture of Wilcox County for 120 years.

This is a history of the freedom Quilting Bee, now twenty years old, and its continuing struggle for survival. It is an account of Father Walter and the wide range of experts in promotion, marketing, and other areas who gave the group assistance and direction from the world outside Wilcox country. It is the story of trade-offs:how the co-of stopped making original, artistic treasures and began to standardize its products in order to stay alive financially, to feed, house, and educate the children.

Most of all, this book is a joyous observation of a special Black culture, a deep will of dignity and imagination from which the Freedom Quilting Bee drew strength to prevail. in these pages is an opportunity to become acquainted with the women themselves,these granddaughters of slaves; to share the depths of their poverty and rural isolation, their fierce faith in God, their lack of formal education, their sacrificial dedication to civil rights,and their resolve to make life better for themselves and their families.

Nancy Callahan is freelance writer who lives in Montgomery, Alabama

This book was published by the University of Alabama Press in 1987. Above is the jacket copy from the Hardcover. Paperback was published in 2005.