In January, graduate research assistant Savannah Grandey and I traversed the state of Alabama as part of a reconnaissance survey of Alabama’s historic agricultural resources. Future blog posts will feature more about our research and survey work for this project, but here I want to share one of the highlights from our most recent trip.
As a graduate assistant myself in 2010, I worked on the Heritage Development Plan and Multiple Property Submission of Skyline Farms to the National Register of Historic Places. Skyline Farms is a New Deal resettlement community in Jackson County, in the northeastern corner of Alabama. It was established in 1934 by the federal government to provide jobs and social welfare to unemployed and homeless farmers in the region through a cooperative-based agricultural program. Forty-three such projects were attempted across the United States, and Skyline Farms is recognized as one of the largest and most successful.
On this most recent visit to Alabama, Savannah and I spent a good bit of time in Gee’s Bend, another New Deal resettlement community. Gee’s Bend is located in Wilcox County, which is in Alabama’s western Black Belt region. Because Jim Crow often pervaded New Deal efforts in the South, resettlement communities were segregated, and Gee’s Bend was specifically designated for African Americans.
Today, the Gee’s Bend community is recognized internationally for its quilters and their contributions to folk art. Reviewing what is left of the resettlement community’s built environment reveals layers of twentieth-century social reform, alterations by successive generations, and racial discrimination embedded within the landscape.
In 1937, the federal government purchased a large tract of land previously held by white landowners. The government subdivided the land and sold parcels to local African American families, most of whom had previously been tenants on the land, for subsistence farming. As with Skyline Farms, the federal government also provided funds and most likely plans for the construction of housing and public buildings.
The extant houses at Gee’s Bend are similar in style to those at Skyline Farms. Much of the surrounding farm landscape, however, was lost in 1962 when a dam was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Alabama River, flooding thousands of acres of fertile farmland in Gee’s Bend.
That same year, county officials terminated the ferry crossing at Gee’s Bend. This change isolated residents further and made travel to Camden, the county seat, extremely difficult. What was once a 7-mile journey across the river to the courthouse became nearly 50 miles by car. This was one of many attempts to prevent African Americans in Wilcox County from voting. It was not until 2006 that officials reopened the ferry with federal funding.
The extant school at Gee’s Bend is made up of three rectangular concrete block structures and is currently vacant. Studying historic images of Gee’s Bend from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division reveals that this structure replaced a larger, Colonial Revival frame structure sometime in the mid-twentieth century.
A post office was added to the community in 1949, the same year that the federal government changed the name of the community to Boykin against many of the residents’ wishes.
Over the years, there have been many changes to the landscape at Gee’s Bend. The present landscape reflects a New Deal resettlement community scarred by racial prejudice during and following the Civil Rights era. It is because of this that Gee’s Bend is an important part of Alabama’s agricultural story. It represents how race played a role in the state’s changing agricultural scene and is therefore important to our survey as we attempt to better understand the history and evolution of agriculture throughout the state.