Mary L. Bennett, “Housetop” (c. 1965), Four-block variation, Cotton and cotton/polyester blend, 77 x 82 inch. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio)

Since 2010, Atlanta-based foundation Souls Grown Deep (SGD) has introduced the works of the women quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama into museum collections. Now, the foundation’s parent organization, Souls Grown Deep Community Partnership, has opened the Gee’s Bend Resource Center, a free public space to help increase census participation, voting registration, and economic stimulus check payment in one of the most underserved communities in the country.

The Gee’s Bend Resource Center, a free public space staffed by members of the community in Alabama, is equipped with free internet access. The center’s paid staff assists residents in registering to vote, completing the 2020 Census, and receiving federal stimulus checks. The foundation has also partnered with the US Census Bureau to establish a phone bank to reach out to households that have never before participated in the census.

Gee’s Bend (renamed to Boykin in 1949) is comprised of a number of Black-majority communities residing along the Alabama River in Wilcox County. (The region was originally named after slave owner Joseph Gee, who established a cotton plantation in the area.)

Women from Gee’s Bend work on a quilt during the 2005 ONB Magic City Art Connection in Birmingham, Alabama’s Linn Park (André Natta/Flickr)

In the last US Census in 2010, Wilcox County registered the lowest response rate in the state, at just 34.2%. Gee’s Bend and Alberta are classified as “unincorporated communities,” which are not represented in local government.

“The first step is to let the government know that people live there,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, president of Souls Grown Deep Community Partnership & Foundation, in an interview with Hyperallergic.

According to Anderson, local residents often respond with “understandable” suspicion to requests to fill out census forms, as they seek to limit their contact with federal authorities to a necessary minimum. They are also reluctant to register to vote because they have no representatives in the local government.

“We’re telling people the filling out the census is actually the way to get resources from the statehouse and the federal government,” Anderson said. “And we’re encouraging them to register to vote so that they can a voice in the local, state, and federal election.”

Third-generation Gee’s Bend quiltmaker and board chair of Souls Grown Deep Mary Margaret Pettway sewing a mask (photo by Kyle Pettway, courtesy of Souls Grown Deep)

Many of the residents of these historically impoverished communities were also left behind in the CARES Act stimulus checks program.

“So many of the people living in these townships in Alabama don’t receive mail and have no active post office in their area,” Anderson said. “There’s a series of challenges around how they can get access to checks or access to any form of information.”

Lack of internet access is another hurdle in receiving federal stimulus checks, a process that requires online form submissions. According to SGD, about 62.5% of the area’s households have no home internet subscription. The foundation’s Resource Center is the first in the region to offer free internet access to residents.

Masks made by Gee’s Bend women quiltmakers (photo by Kyle Pettway, courtesy of Souls Grown Deep)

In the last few months, Gee’s Bend’s quilters have been dedicating their sewing skills to making COVID-19 face masks for members of the community. SGD is supporting the project with funds that were originally designated for an exhibition. Mary Margaret Pettway, a third-generation Gee’s Bend quiltmaker and board chair of Souls Grown Deep, is leading the project. The masks are delivered to every household in the community.

The foundation has more plans for the center — located at local Alberta restaurant, Aunt Ruby’s Kitchen — including developing an online platform for the quilters to sell their work, Anderson told Hyperallergic.

“These are baby steps towards birthing a local economy,” he said, adding that he’d like to see the center as a familiar place not just for sustenance, “but also for activism.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...