HISTORY OF GEE’S BEND
Long before Gee’s Bend was ever known, it was Indian land. It is thought that, in the sixteenth century, Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto visited an Indian village on a creek in this area before he pushed on toward his death in Mississippi. Four hundred years later, “black” people live there who claim Indian blood. Some have Indian surnames. Others have Indian characteristics.
Note 1: De Soto’s Trail through the Southeast
The first recorded white resident to live in the area was Joseph Gee, a planter from Halifax, North Carolina, who came in 1816, established a plantation, and named the place for himself. Upon his death in 1824, he left 47 black slaves. Two of his North Carolina nephews, Sterling and Charles Gee, came to Alabama in the hopes of inheriting his estate. During the legal manoeuvrings, Sterling inherited a family estate back home and returned to live there. Charles became manager of the Gee’s Bend plantation. Some people say the Bend accommodated a slave-trading operation for the Gees between Alabama and North Carolina.
Note 2: Joseph Gee and 18 slaves are enumerated in the 1820 Alabama Census.
Note 3: Charles, Joseph, Sterling H. and William F. Gee original land patents on the Bureau of Land Management site. Plugin Gee as Patentee’s Last Name and select Wilcox County from the pull-down menu.
In 1845 the two Gee brothers owed $29,000 to their relative Mark H. Pettway. As a settlement, they have him Gee’s Bend. A year later, Pettway and his family moved there in a caravan with a hundred or more slaves. Except for one cook, the slaves literally walked from North Carolina toGee’s Bend.
The 10,000-acre plantation retained “Gee” for its name but the name of each of the slaves became “Pettway”, a name that has prevailed in Wilcox County until the present day. Today, if someone from Gee’s Bend is named Pettway, he or she is a descendant or married to a descendant of those Mark Pettway wagon-train slaves who walked from North Carolina.
After emancipation, the black Pettway’s remained on the land as tenants or sharecroppers.
Members of the Pettway family held the land until 1895 when they sold their 4000 acres and left.
In 1900, Attorney Adrian Sebastian VandeGraaff of Tuscaloosa acquired the land that the Pettway’s had sold to others and added another 3000 acres. For the first 16 years of ownership, a family uncle lived at Sandy Hill, the “big house” and former residence of the Pettway’s, as supervisor. After his death, other white, family-appointed overseers were in charge. The Vandegraaffs held the land as absentee landlords until 1937 when they sold all the land to the United States government.
Because of its location, 18 miles from Alberta and surrounded on three sides by the bridgeless Alabama River, Gee’s Bend was isolated. It was only 7 miles or so from the county seat of Camden but the only mode of transportation across the river was a makeshift ferry that operated when weather permitted. The road to Alberta was clouded with dust in dry weather and covered in mud in the rainy season. The land route to Alberta and then by state road to Camden was more than 40 miles one way.
Reverend Renwick Kennedy wrote stories about Gees Bend for the Christian Century in the 1930s. In 1937 he wrote: “Gee’s Bend represents not merely a geographic configuration drawn by the yellow pencil of the river. Gee’s Bend represents another civilization. Gee’s Bend is an Alabama Africa. There is no more concentrated and racially exclusive Negro population in any rural community in the South than in Gee’s Bend.”
When the Depression hit, the price of cotton fell to 5 cents a pound so, although Benders took their crops to Camden to cover debts to the merchant who advanced them credit, the price was too low to cover the debts. The merchant continued to advance them credit for the next three years and stored the cotton in a warehouse hoping for better times and higher prices. To secure the debts, he obtained chattel liens on the possessions of 60 families. He was the only one to maintain records of the entire three-year system of business.
In the summer of 1932, the merchant died. That autumn, his widow foreclosed on the Benders who owed her husband’s estate. Her representatives trooped off the ferry and riding on horseback and sporting pistols took away everything not nailed down. The wagonsful of liquidated goods from 68 households and more than 300 people were loaded on the ferry and floated off. The Benders were left with nothing.
Thanks to the Vandegraaffs who were otherwise helpless in the situation, the land was rent-free. Had it not been for the Red Cross which provided flour, meat and meal during the winter of 1932-33, the people of Gee’s Bend would have starved to death. With National Guard help, foodstuffs were shipped from Birmingham to the Camden armoury then ferried to Gee’s Bend. The Red Cross also sent shoes. W.J. Jones of Oak Hill, Red Cross campaign manager at the time, said, “You can’t imagine the horror of it. Starvation was terrific.”
More about Gees Bend:
TENANT FARMERS. Documenting America – online exhibit of FSA B&W photographs. Photographer: Arthur Rothstein. Gee’s Bend, Alabama, February and April 1937, Resettlement Administration, Lot 1616.
AP news story about the resumption of ferry service that also includes some history and background of Gees Bend. From the Nando Times, Jan. 1996.
Gee’s Bend: Songs from Beyond the River. The companion site to Alabama Public Radio’s radio-documentary.
Crossing Over. Pullitzer Prize-winning feature article written by J.R. Moehringer of the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 22, 1999.
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. Transcript of PBS/Jim Lehrer News Hour program, July 1, 2003.