Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is a hamlet famous for its quilting community. Some consider the quilts of Gee’s Bend among the most significant African-American cultural contributions to the history of art within the United States. It was one of the stops on a nine-day road trip my friend Sharon Curry and I were on visiting quilt museums and fabric shops in several states.
On the way to Gee’s Bend, we passed a fascinating display of antique farm equipment and stopped to explore. There is something deep in my core that loves farming and gardening. I’ve tried my hand at both but have seldom been able to grow anything as beautiful as my grandpa’s vegetable gardens or as festive as my granny’s Christmas cactus and Easter lilies. I recognized some of the equipment, but others were too antique. Thankfully, each piece of equipment had a plaque with the name of the farmer who had donated it as well as what it was used.
We continued on our way through south Alabama and made it to the hamlet of Gee’s Bend around mid-morning. We discovered that the building housing the historic quilts was closed on Sundays. We decided to explore the building site and surrounding neighborhood anyway. There was a ‘Quilt Trail’ that you could drive along and see sizeable individual painted quilt squares displayed at several locations. We mapped out our route and started following the Quilt Trail to locate all the squares.
We were having fun driving along the Quilt Trail, spotting the various brightly colored squares. When we found a square, I would jump out of the vehicle, take photos of it, jump back in, and then Sharon would drive along until we spied the next one. After several stops, as I got back into the SUV, instead of heading out in the direction of the next square waiting to be discovered, Sharon whipped the vehicle around and headed in the opposite direction. At first, I thought she had misunderstood my directions, so I repeated them. She just smiled as she slowly continued in the opposite direction. I looked up to see what she was focused on. It was apparent she was headed straight toward two men.
I was taken by surprise and wasn’t sure what to think. This behavior was completely out of character for Sharon. As we approached the men, I inquired of her a little nervously but with a smile, “What are you doing?”. She smiled back. “I bet these men know where we can find some quilts!” She rolled the window down, stopped the car, and cheerfully called out, “Good Morning!” The two men seemed excited that we had stopped,
especially the tall, lanky one. “Good Mornin’,” they replied just as cheerily. The tall, lanky one took the lead. “Is you ladies lookin’ for some quilts?” “Why yes, we are!” Sharon couldn’t hide the excitement in her voice. I couldn’t hide my wide-eyed amazement at the scene playing out in front of me. The two men chuckled, and the tall, lanky one answered, “Well, I’d knows right where to find some. Follow me! It ain’t far, just right over there.” Much to my amazement, Sharon followed him.
At this point, I became slightly alarmed. I’ve known Sharon all of my life. Her husband Roy was one of my dad’s closest friends from childhood, so Sharon had been part of my life from its very beginning, which just goes to show that you never really know someone regardless of how long you have known them. If you had asked me a few minutes ago whether or not Sharon Curry would play tagalong with a strange man in a strange land, I would have assured you that she would not do any such thing. But suddenly, the tagalong episode was playing out live, and I had a front-row seat.
Sharon has been sewing for more than fifty years and became a serious quilter over a decade ago. She is always on the lookout for interesting quilts, quilting ideas, and fabric. She was enthralled with the idea of finding a hidden treasure on the back roads of Gee’s Bend. Not being a quilter myself, I was not distracted by the hunt for a handmade treasure and became acutely aware of our situation. Let me remind you what the situation was: Two women from South Florida on a road trip, traveling through a remote hamlet in Alabama, following an unknown tall, lanky man to an undisclosed unfamiliar location to look at handmade quilts. That was just the beginning. It gets more interesting.
We offered to let the tall, lanky man get in the vehicle’s with us, but he refused. Insisting it was just “right over yonder.” About two blocks later, we found ourselves parked in front of a single wide mobile home. Tall and lanky was motioning for us to come around back. I swear I never saw Sharon move as quickly as she did, getting out of the SUV and nearly sprinting around back, clearly anticipating what quilt treasures she was about to discover.
On the other hand, I proceeded with caution and took a few minutes to look around the area, observing where the next sign of a living soul might be should we need to scream for help. I was also trying to decide whether to be excited that Sharon was having so much fun or concerned because we had no clue where we were, and there was definitely not a quick escape route. After determining that the area looked well-kept with no imminent signs of danger, I decided we were reasonably safe and went to find Sharon.
Walking cautiously around the back of the trailer, I saw Sharon and the stranger hanging quilts up on a wire clothesline. Two plastic bins were overflowing, and the tall man was hanging them up on the multiple rows of wire so they could be fully viewed. It created a magnificent display, and Sharon was able to inspect each quilt thoroughly. She was making her way through the lines looking at the fronts and the backs of each creation. “What’s your name?” I asked the tall and lanky stranger, trying to appear politely curious instead of like I was taking mental notes for a future police report. “Fortune Hoppins, that’s my real name,” he beamed. “Sure it is,” I thought to myself as I verbally replied, “That’s an interesting name.” Sharon was lost in the lines of quilts, inspecting the seams, comparing the patterns. “Hold on now, I gots some more” Fortune disappeared inside the trailer. I asked Sharon, “Do you think whoever made these quilts knows he’s trying to sell them to us?” Sharon chuckled and kept on inspecting the quilts picking out her favorites among them.
Fortune reappeared with another large plastic bin filled to overflowing. While he was hanging more quilts up, I asked, “Did you make all of these yourself?” he laughed. “Lawd no! My wife made them.” Sharon commented on what a good job she had done. As the handmade treasures gently wafted in the wind, I continued with my inquiry. “Does she know you are out here trying to sell us these quilts?” I laughingly asked. For the first time, I sensed a pause in Fortune’s enthusiasm. “Well, she’s at church right now. But my wife is always tryin’ to sell her quilts.” Fortune continued to assist Sharon in viewing the quilts. Sharon picked out a few she liked and asked the price. Fortune started his sales pitch of how long it took for his wife to make them and how each one was signed. Sharon expressed her understanding of the time it took being a quilter herself and pressed Fortune to give her a price. Again I sensed hesitation, and my instinct told me his wife may not be thrilled with him playing quilt broker with her quilts.
“What time does your wife get home from church,” I asked. Sensing he may be about to lose this sale, he said. “Oh, there ain’t no way to know about that, but I tell you what we’ll do.” He was quickly gathering the quilts that hadn’t gained our attention and refilling the plastic bins. “We’ll take the quilts you like down to the church and see my wife. Let me just put these others back in the house.” Sharon was agreeable; she liked the idea of haggling with the actual maker of the quilt. I, on the other hand, raised a skeptical eyebrow. I wasn’t thinking about the quilt deal at play. I was thinking about a husband dragging his wife out of church to meet two strange women who were hauling him around town in an out-of-state car loaded down with her precious creations. I expressed my concerns aloud, but Fortune insisted it would be okay. It was only a couple of miles down the road, and church hadn’t started yet.
Sharon had sprinted around the front. She was already moving things around in the backseat to fit in Fortune and his wife’s quilts when he and I got to the vehicle. As Sharon drove us down the road in the direction of the church, Fortune volunteered his photo identification to me cheerily, He said, “See, this is my God-given name,” and sure enough, there was his face smiling proudly with his name “Fortune Hoppins” printed on an official government-issued identification card.
When we got to the church parking lot, he was quick to direct Sharon to park on the side of the road, “You don’t want to get blocked in. All them folks be showin’ up any minute.” I laughed and commented I thought he was the one that didn’t want to get blocked in case his wife wasn’t as delighted to see us as he thought she might be. Fortune grinned and headed off in the direction of the church. “Y’all waits right here. I’ll be right back.” Sharon and I stepped out of the car to await his return, and we noticed a cemetery on the side of the church parking lot. “We’ll be lucky if we don’t end up under one of those headstones when his wife gets a hold of us,” I commented. Sharon ignored my prediction and gave me instructions on the maximum amount I should agree to pay for the quilt top I had selected.
In a few moments, Fortune came back escorting a very dressed-up, highly agitated woman he introduced as his wife. We tried to make her smile by relating the story of how we came to be standing on the side of the road in front of the church parking lot with a bunch of her quilts and her husband. All we got was a raised eyebrow. Sharon explained that she herself was a quilter and started complimenting Mrs. Hoppins on her stitching, which finally brought a smile to her face.
Then the haggling started. Mrs. Hoppins named her price, Sharon countered. Mrs. Hoppins went over how much time each quilt had taken.
Sharon agreed, “I know how long it must have taken you, and it’s beautiful, but I am on a fixed income…”.
And Fortune was in the background, continuing to play both sides, trying to get one of them to fold. He would encourage his wife, “Now baby, you knows we need that money,” and prod Sharon, “She done put a lot of time in these quilts, and she signed her name on them, they’s one of a kind.”
After several minutes of haggling with no one budging, I pulled out the small quit-top I had selected to ask Mrs. Hoppins what her price was for it. She gave me a price nearly double what Sharon had advised me to pay.
By this time, I had fully absorbed the magnitude of the situation we were in. I am guessing you have too, but let me recap it for you: Two women have followed a strange man home, plundered in his wife’s handmade quilts, loaded a few of the precious creations, and the man into an out of state car, driven to a church and interrupted Sunday School to drag a fancily dressed agitated woman out into the parking lot to haggle over pricing on her quilts that are in Sharon’s car. There was no way I was going to end up under one of those tombstones beside the church that day. I agreed to the price Mrs. Hoppins stated and went to get the cash out of my purse.
My willingness to pay full price somehow softened the tension in the air between Sharon and Mrs. Hoppins. As I handed over the cash, Fortune started gently encouraging his wife to make a deal with Sharon. Much to everyone’s delight, she softened her position, and after a few minutes, Sharon had negotiated a good deal on the quilt she liked best.
Cash was exchanged for the quilts, which were loaded back into the car, goodbyes were said, and Mrs. Hoppins instructed us to take her husband back home. We were more than happy to oblige. We waved goodbye and watched the fancily dressed Mrs. Hoppins strut back into church a little more cheerful as Fortune slid into the back seat for the ride home with a huge smile on his face, happy with his success in helping to sell two of his wife’s quilts.
I can’t recall everything Fortune said on the short ride home, but he had Sharon and me laughing as he expressed what would have happened to him when his wife got home if Sharon and I had not bought any quilts, and we are still laughing about it today. We dropped him off at home, and he invited us to stop by again if we were ever in the area.
Fortune Hoppins was one of the most entertaining souls I have had the pleasure to meet in my travels. If I’m ever in his neighborhood again, I will definitely look him up and see if he remembers the time he instigated quilt negotiations one Sunday morning in the church parking lot.