Backstory: The freedom ferry

Boat service returns to isolated Gee's Bend, Ala., in a tale of racial redemption.

Tall reeds line the banks of the Alabama River, swaying lazily in the dark water's eddies as the wild tenor of crickets and cicadas dips and soars through the October stillness. Fat water moccasins sun themselves on cracked red clay as long-legged egrets snatch greedily from a school of water beetles skimming the surface. A fish jumps once, then twice. A man laughs once, then again as he joins a handful of people boarding the ferry.

All God's creatures are free in Gee's Bend.

After more than four decades without ferry service, the 700 residents of this threadbare community isolated by the river are now free to take the short ride across to nearby Camden and the dentists and drugstores beyond.

The ferry was shut down in the 1960s by white county officials at the height of the civil rights movement, presumably to keep the African- American residents here from going into Camden to vote or protest. But now the ferry has restored their ability to interact more easily with the outside world, and the outside world with them, in what may be one of the South's most poignant and prolonged tales of racial redemption.

The result is likely to be more freedom for the people of Gee's Bend, more notoriety for a now-famous group of local quilters, and some justice for a century of wrongs waged in a state that would like desperately to forget elements of its past. Yet the things that make Gee's Bend special – the strength, grit, and character of the people and the bucolic simplicity of the place – is likely to remain, despite the return of the ferry and the irrepressible march of modern time.

***

Gee's Bend sits on a peninsula in an oxbow in the Alabama River, 90 minutes southwest of Montgomery, deep in the mud of the South's Black Belt. "Roosevelt houses" – tiny clapboard boxes – dot the landscape, a reminder of the president who was so moved by the deplorable conditions here after the Depression that he sent loans, food, and rows of homes.

Gee's Bend is an interwoven community made up largely of former slave descendants. Many of its residents bear the last name (Pettway) of the white plantation owner who marched his indentured servants in by foot from North Carolina in 1847. When civil rights workers came through Gee's Bend in the 1960s, they found a place so far removed from the rest of the world that it was once called "Alabama's Africa."

The trip to Camden was 20 minutes by boat and an hour of hairpin curves and bone-jarring dips by car. Stirred by the promise of freedom, the people of Gee's Bend began making the ferry trip regularly in the '60s, swarming into town to storm the courthouse and demand the right to vote. The ferry disappeared soon afterward under a blanket of suspicion. But the residents continued to march – to Camden, to Selma, to Montgomery – emboldened by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who rode through one night and told them to cross literal and metaphorical rivers always converging in the South.

Stories differ on why the boat, a rickety skiff, was suddenly taken away. But lifelong Gee's Bend resident Tracy Pettway repeats an oft-told reason here, as he helps passengers board the new ferry, where he's worked as a deckhand since it began operation a few weeks ago. "All the older people said the whites didn't want the blacks to come over there [to Camden] to vote," he says.

Taking the ferry away didn't stop change from coming, and bringing it back 44 years later won't speed it along, says Mr. Pettway. State lawmakers and local business leaders may have resumed ferry service, but it's the people themselves – close-mouthed, tight-knit, stubbornly aloof – who will wring progress from the muddy soil. "It's the quilters really," he says, referring to the 40 or so women who've gone from being Alabama homemakers to American folk heroes. "That's why I think the ferry is back now. Nobody else but the quilters."

Every few years, an outsider stumbles upon the colorful quilts, and fascination with Gee's Bend rises again. Like everything here, the quilts are a testament to freedom, a fact not missed by art critics, who laud them as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." Hems snake crookedly through whatever materials can be found: burlap sacks, work clothes, faded blue jeans with pockets. They weren't intended to be art; they were meant to keep winter winds at bay in houses made of little more than mud and logs. Now they sell for as much as $30,000 to New York collectors and can be found in stores like Bloomingdale's and Saks and museums from Boston to San Francisco. Last month, the US Postal Service issued a series of stamps featuring 10 of the creations.

"You'd look at some of them and say, 'These ugly things?' " Pettway says. But there's pride in his voice. The humble quilters are quiet royalty around here, much respected and well loved. They're on the road a lot, traveling to shows, but Gee's Bend is home, even if it's getting crowded with tourists coming to see where the stitching all started.

Change might be coming, but residents say the things they treasure most will endure. No one has much, but days come and go with a simple sweetness. The men are welders, mechanics, blue-collar laborers. The women work at sewing factories and food processing plants an hour away in Selma. As young people move out, older people move back, and life continues in a slow circle. "You can't find a better place to raise kids," says Pettway. "There's no crime rate and you don't have to worry about gangs. It's just not here – not in Gee's Bend."

***

Another Pettway, Annette, echoes those sentiments. As one of the esteemed quilters, she's had her chances to leave and even tried life in Connecticut for a while. It wasn't for her.

"People in the city, they lock up so much," she says, sitting on her couch, keeping one eye on her soap operas and the other on the deserted stretch of County Road 29 that wanders in a five-mile horseshoe around the town. "When I go shopping, I just shut my door. It's a free spirit down here. You're in the country for real, though. There ain't no stores, and the two we got be closed most of the time."

Pettway hasn't taken the ferry yet, but says its return is a convenience – and vindication. "The ambulance can get here quicker, and for the people who work over there, it's a real help," she says. "It shouldn't have been taken in the first place."

As dusk lopes toward evening, the ferry lies still on the river, the day's work complete, stars twinkling above. The same stars shine in Indianapolis tonight, where the quilters are preparing for another show. The same stars shine in Camden, where the busy sidewalks are now empty. But as the lights go out one by one in Gee's Bend, the stars seem to twinkle brightest of all, and slowly, softly, a hush falls across the land.

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