Quilt Story: Black Rural Women, White Urban Entrepreneurs, and the American Dream
Working for the Southern Rural Research Project (SRRP), which was interested in getting the Department of Agriculture to play a more responsible role in what was happening to the Black farmer, three of us interviewed tenant farmers in Wilcox County about their lives, with a focus on the inadequate nutritional value of what they ate. When we asked these people why they didn't plant vegetables (we were prepared to tell them about combining incomplete proteins), many told us that the owners of the land did not permit them have own gardens. Indeed, the rows of cotton or soybeans usually came right up to the front step. Most ate cornbread and molasses, fatback, and greens, often supplemented by the surplus food package provided by the USDA, which was mostly made up of carbohydrates.
The families we spoke to were living in unpainted shacks, many of them without glass in the windows, and the space between boards was insulated by newspapers. The shacks were cold in the winter. While the tenants had electricity (and television), they cooked on old wood-burning stoves that were very hot in the summer, and had no indoor plumbing.
The SRRP tried to get publicity for the lack of protein in the diets of Black farmers, and we told the national media (e.g. Newsweek, etc.) that on a given day we were distributing ground beef in a town in Greene County. It was against ordinances to do that, and we were prepared to get arrested. But the media didn't come, and the demonstration was ignored by the town police.
Eventually Gary Hunt, Nancy Scheper, and I wrote an article about the conditions we had seen and talked about with tenant farmers, taking the USDA food programs to task for failing to prevent malnutrition in the Black Belt. The piece was accepted by Ramparts, a glossy left-wing magazine, but before it could be published, the editors asked us to rewrite it from the point of view of the impact, on poor Blacks in Alabama, of the guaranteed annual wage that Ramparts was sure Nixon was going to get passed! We rewrote our article, saying that things would be only marginally better with a guaranteed annual wage. This was because we felt that the fundamental problem in the rural south was the perpetuation of a form of slavery (or feudalism) under the tenant-farming system, which was driving Black farmers to migrate North to troubled racial ghettos. That article was published as "Nixon's Guaranteed Annual Poverty" in Ramparts in November of 1969 and reprinted in Divided We Stand (1970).
We three writers lived in Gee's Bend, in Wilcox County, where people lived ontheir own land and had snug little houses that the federal government had helped them build. This happened when the New Deal's Farm Security Administration, in 1937, bought a plantation and made it a cooperative experiment. In 1946, the government sold small farms to the descendants of the former slaves, afterward tenant farmers, at low prices and interest rates. In 1968 the Gee's Benders were small independent farmers without indoor plumbing, telephones, or, for the most part, cars, but unlike the tenants we interviewed they had protein in their diets. They had been unusually active in the civil rights movement, registering to vote in large numbers, and many participated in the famous march across the bridge in Selma because they did not have to fear eviction for political activity.
The Bend was the home of the Freedom Quilting Bee. Started in 1965, it was run as a coop, and sold quilts to Northern department stores. When we left, we took quilts with us to sell where we lived.
Later, I was active in the women's liberation movement, and became an English professor, teaching mostly at Ohio University, where I was also Director of Women's Studies. Now that I am retired, I live in Philadelphia and am involved in the attempt to get single-payer healthcare. I worked to get Obama elected, and much of my writing is political journalism. My current project is to research and write about the history of Gee's Bend, whose quilts have become famous, shown in museums all over the country. I hope that my article will play a part in the attempt to revive the Freedom Quilting Bee that is now underway.