Alabama Quilting Collective Using $250,000 Grant for New Museum Dedicated to a Forgotten Legacy

Creating the Freedom Quilting Bee Heritage Center and Museum is about so much more than repairing an old building.  

The Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy
Photo: The Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy

Just a few miles away from the famous Gee's Bend Quilters in Boykin, Alabama, lies another Wilcox County community with a rich history of making magic with fabric and thread—though few know its story.

The original Freedom Quilting Bee Collective ("The Bee") was established in the rural town of Alberta by Civil Rights activists Francis X Walter and Estelle Witherspoon in 1966. At a time when Black people were being evicted from their homes and losing their jobs for registering to vote, Walter, an Episcopal priest, saw the beautiful quilts hanging on clotheslines as a way for local women to make some much-needed money for their families.

Within just a few years, the co-op run out of a building dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., became a manufacturing headquarters, with clients including Sears, Roebuck & Co., and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Making more money than they ever imagined, The Bee gave the people of Alberta the ability to come out of the fields, provide for their families, install indoor plumbing in their homes, and send their children to college.

By the late 1980s, however, interest in The Bee's products had begun to wane and the contracts with their most profitable retailers were not renewed. The Bee shuttered its doors in the 1990s, and the cherished building fell into disrepair.

When Elaine Williams returned to her childhood home after more than 30 years, she was saddened to see that a place of great pride was no longer operating. A few years ago, in an effort to bring attention back to the resilient and innovative women of The Bee, Williams established Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy (FQBL), a non-profit dedicated to repairing and transforming the original building into an educational destination.

Now, thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership, Williams is closer than ever to making her dream a reality. According to a release, the funds will help to turn the historic building into The Freedom Quilting Bee Heritage Center and Museum.

WATCH: The Famous Quilters of Gee's Bend Alabama Are Making Face Masks for Every Person in Their Town

In addition to a retail store and historical exhibits, the museum will be a community center—providing studio space for artists and makers, free or low-cost classes to teach quilting and other textile arts, free internet access for the community, and volunteer and work opportunities.

"The Black Belt of Alabama has amazing stories of fortitude and resilience that go untold," Williams said 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."

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