Elaine Williams, president of the Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy (photo by Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studio; courtesy of Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy and Souls Grown Deep)

The Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy, a nonprofit in Alberta, Alabama, has received a $250,000 grant from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership to build a museum honoring the legacy of a historical quilting collective that operated until the late 1990s in Alabama’s “Black Belt.”

The original Freedom Quilting Bee collective (“The Bee”) was established in 1966 by civil rights activist and Episcopalian priest Francis X. Walter to provide a source of income for Black women in Rehoboth in Wilcox County. (It was separate from the better known Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective, whose members reside in the nearby community of Boykin.) In its early years, the collective gained enormous success with an exhibition at the Smithsonian. They also attracted interest from artists like Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner and retail clients like Sears, Roebuck, and Saks Fifth Avenue. In its busiest period, the collective produced 5,000 shams a month. But beginning in the late 1980s, demand for the Bee’s products began to dwindle, and its founders began aging; many have since died. In the late 1990s, the collective ceased its activities, and its historical building, dedicated in 1969 to Martin Luther King, Jr., fell into disrepair.

The Souls Grown Deep grant will be used to repair the collective’s historical building, which will house the Freedom Quilting Bee Heritage Center and Museum. The planned center and museum will celebrate the Bee’s artistic legacy; provide educational programming on the historical contribution of Black women to their communities during the Jim Crow era; and promote quilting and textile manufacturing jobs in the impoverished areas of rural Alabama.

The grant was made in honor of Estelle Witherspoon, a founding member and longtime manager of the Freedom Quilting Bee. A member of the Civil Rights Movement, Witherspoon participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and was arrested in 1971 during an un-permitted march for school desegregation.

“The Black Belt of Alabama has amazing stories of fortitude and resilience that go untold,” said Elaine Williams, President of the Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy, in a statement. “With this new center and museum, the Freedom Quilting Bee will not be lost to time and the women who made an economy of selling quilts in this hamlet will not be forgotten.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...