Return Of The Bees
– Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund
On March 26, 1966, sixty Black women agrarian-artisans from villages throughout the Alabama Black Belt including Alberta, Gee’s Bend, Possum Bend, Polk Junction, and Selma gathered at Antioch Baptist Church to form the Freedom Quilting Bee, a textilecraft cooperative birthed out of the Civil Rights Movement. Many coop members including Patti Irby (pictured above) were active in the civil rights demonstrations in Camden, Alabama and were jailed for their resistance to systemic white domination. With a collective determination to build an alternative economy rooted in the values and imaginations of the community, the Freedom Quilting Bee became the largest community-owned enterprise in Alberta and the surrounding area.
During the bread-and-butter years, supported by the coop’s decade-long contract with Sears to make corduroy pillow shams, the Freedom Quilting Bee had over 150 members. According to the documentary, With Fingers of Love Freedom Quilting Bee, the Freedom Quilting Bee had gross sales of $6,000 in 1966; $22,000 in 1968; and projected sales of $100,000 in 1969. With the surplus generated from sales to individuals, department stores, and interior design firms, coop members were able to supplement their farming incomes; purchase washing machines and refrigerators for their homes; care for their families; and qualify for social security benefits.
On March 22, 1969, the Freedom Quilting Bee celebrated the historic groundbreaking of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Sewing Center. Many of the founding members were either tenant farmers or one generation removed from tenant farming, so this collective feat of land ownership was a high-spirited ceremony punctuated by freedom songs from Bernice Johnson Reagon, founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Freedom Singers in the Southwest Georgia Movement. Living in Black Belt Alabama, the Bee’s founding members carried traumatic stories of white landowners enforcing racial caste through violent land dispossession of tenant farming families involved in the Civil Rights Movement. To support the interwoven aims of voting rights, human dignity, mutual aid, economic autonomy, and land abundance, the Freedom Quilting Bee sold eight plots from their 17-acre parcel to landless coop members and used the remaining land to raise pigs and cattle to develop additional revenue streams for the coop. Several coop members and/or their descendants still reside on their beloved homeplaces created out of the collective spirit of the Freedom Quilting Bee.
Sean Cokes for Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund (2020).
NOTE FROM PHOTOGRAPHER AND DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER PATRICIA GOUDVIS
I have been a documentary filmmaker most of my life, but I started out as a still photographer. In 1974, when I was a 21-year-old college student, I traveled to the South to photograph people and places I had learned about at the First National Conference on Land Reform (held in San Francisco in 1973), where the issue of land loss by African Americans was a central focus. In addition to visiting the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Research Center in Epes and a number of member cooperatives, including the Freedom Quilting Bee, I photographed sugarcane workers in Louisiana and produced a sound/slide show about the Mississippi Poultry Workers Union. My photographs were used in publications and by the organizations I visited at the time, but then sat untouched in various basements over the years. I’ve now brought the photos into the digital world and am deeply satisfied that they have found a new life helping tell the story of people and organizations devoted to improving life for small farmers and those connected to the land.
The Cuban agroecologist Fernando Funes Monzote shared, "you make the path by walking."
Engage with our tribe on social media as we make our path toward collective liberation through the preservation of Black agrarian custodial landownership, ecological stewardship, and food and fiber economies in the South.