In the wake of the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” of 1964 and similar drives to register black voters in other Southern states, many African Americans suffered the loss of their jobs and homes as retaliation for registering to vote. In December of 1965, Father Francis X. Walter, an Episcopal priest and civil rights activist, was driving through Wilcox County to document cases of such retaliation. While passing through Possum Bend, he happened upon a clothesline from which were hanging three vibrant handmade quilts. Struck by their unique beauty, Father Walter realized that the women of Wilcox County could supplement their family incomes—which had been less than $1,000 a year—by organizing a quilting collective.
Established in 1966, the Freedom Quilting Bee soon became a major success, its vivid products catching the eye of New York fashion mavens and tastemakers such as Diana Vreeland, editor of “Vogue” magazine. As the Bee became increasingly successful, instead of employing the scrapbag fabrics that characterized the earlier work of rural quilters, they began to use more costly materials, as is the case with this striking example, constructed from rich fabrics manufactured by Liberty, a London department store known for its luxurious printed textiles.
The Freedom Quilting Bee’s work has been displayed in the Smithsonian Institution and sold in stores such as Bloomingdale’s. More recently, the Bee—the largest employer in Wilcox County—has diversified their production, producing conference bags. In 1999, Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream maker, established a licensing agreement with the Freedom Quilting Bee for the production of cow bandanas, aprons and baby bibs. In their own words, the Freedom Quilting Bee “has become the embodiment of a concept of economic independence for black women.”