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A Crossing Long Closed in Bigotry Reopens in the Spirit of Commerce

Times Staff Writer

GEE’S BEND, Ala. -- The muddy backwaters of the Alabama River took on a holy, silver glint Monday morning as a freshly painted white ferry inched around a corner of Gee’s Bend.

A row of frail women clutching canes, purses and sunhats waited gingerly at the water’s edge.

For 44 years, residents of this isolated African American community, which is hemmed in on three sides by a sweeping curve in the Alabama River, have waited for a ferry to take them across the river to Camden, the Wilcox County seat. On Monday, their ship finally came in.

The ferry service shut down in 1962 after “Benders,” as residents are known, were emboldened by a visit from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to cross the river to register to vote.

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Without the 15-minute ferry service, residents of this remote southwest Alabama land have had to drive for nearly an hour to shop for milk and flour, go to school or pick up a prescription.

Nettie Young, a silver-haired 89-year-old in a black-and-white sundress, gasped as she took small, slow steps up the ferry’s steel ramp.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

Surrounded by television news crews, she sat on a metal chair, beaming as she looked about the 100-foot ferry, which has four 113-hp diesel engines and can carry about 150 passengers and 20 cars.

Young did wonder, though, whether she would use the ferry much. Probably, she said, she would rather have a bridge.

“A bridge would be here to stay,” she said. “A bridge wouldn’t go nowhere. That’s my opinion. This is for sightseeing.”

Behind her, Willie Quill Pettway, who used to steer the old cable ferry, trembled as he climbed the metal stairs to join Capt. Willie Washington in the pilot’s house. Smiling dreamily, the 79-year-old, who was hooked up to a small oxygen tank, reminisced about his tiny cable ferry with paddle wheels. “This is much better than the other ferry,” he said. “It has a motor.”

But not all the Benders were impressed.

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The Rev. Clinton Pettway, 49, minister at Ye Shall Know the Truth Baptist Church, declined to board. He stood stone-faced on the shore as the boat left for a christening in Camden. Not only would he have preferred the ceremony to take place in Gee’s Bend, he wasn’t sure his congregation needed a ferry that would make six round trips a day. “We needed the ferry 44 years ago,” he said. “Now we need a bridge.”

Gee’s Bend has changed since then, he said. Residents no longer ride mule wagons. Many residences now have three or four cars.

Fares will be charged starting in October -- $3 for a car and driver, $1 for each additional person or for a pedestrian.

Mingling with the long-term residents at the back of the boat was a group of new residents, most of them white, who had moved to Gee’s Bend in retirement or who had bought second homes there.

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As the boat glided past swaths of sycamores, cottonwoods and willows, John Thames, 67, a retired law professor who moved to Gee’s Bend last month, picked up his binoculars to look for great egrets and blue herons. “We moved here because it’s remote,” he said. “That’s about to change.”

One of the most isolated parts of the nation, Gee’s Bend has long been focused on by outsiders, including Arthur Rothstein, a New York photographer who documented the community for the Farm Security Administration, and J.R. Moehringer, a Los Angeles Times correspondent who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature in 2000 about the long wait for a new ferry.

When the boat reached Camden, the Benders were greeted by the Wilcox County High School brass band, which played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” About 250 people crowded under the shade of a white plastic tarp, fanning paper programs and swiping at lovebugs. At the water’s edge, a cluster of onlookers from the Camden side of the river -- including a Chihuahua called Dubya -- sat beneath umbrellas in small fishing boats.

After waiting under the hot sun for nearly an hour, they heard from dignitaries including Alabama Gov. Bob Riley. “Someone said it’s better later than never,” he said. “Well, from 1962 to 2006, it’s later. But it is here.”

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Construction of the ferry began in 1998, two years after Congress allocated $695,000 for it. The project was beset with problems. The Alabama Department of Transportation hired a local maker of fiberglass fishing boats who had never built a ferry. In 2004, the ferry got stuck on a muddy bank as it was delivered to Camden. It failed to meet Coast Guard regulations, and later Hurricane Katrina damaged it. The ferry ended up costing $1.9 million.

For Rep. Artur Davis, a black Democrat whose district includes Gee’s Bend, the new ferry carried a powerful meaning: “That old Black Belt we used to have, the one where some people knew their place, is dead.”

But he said it was only the first of many steps needed. Economic development is still lagging in the southern end of Alabama’s Black Belt. Wilcox is one of the state’s poorest counties, with 39% of residents below the poverty line and 15% unemployed. “Not getting across the river is only one way to isolate people,” he said.

The ferry’s future is uncertain. It will be operated by the state for a year. Then Wilcox County will take responsibility for the service, which means the ferry could stop if it doesn’t draw a sufficient number of riders.

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“The population of Wilcox County is not enough to sustain this ferry,” said state Treasurer Kay Ivey, a Wilcox native who hopes the ferry will make Gee’s Bend a tourist destination. “We want to bring the eyes of the world to this garden spot.”

The christening was performed by the women of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective, whose vivid geometric quilts have been exhibited in museums across the country. Last month, the U.S. Postal Service used 10 Gee’s Bend designs in its American Treasures stamp series.

After quilter Ollie Pettway, 89, broke a bottle of champagne on a railing draped with a white quilt with orange squares, the quilters gathered around the governor to sing an old spiritual.

“I don’t want nobody to praise me when I’m gone,” they trilled as Riley clapped. “Give me my flowers when I live.”

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When the ferry returned to Gee’s Bend from its christening in Camden, longtime Benders lined the riverbank to take photos.

“I’ve never seen a ferry here before,” said Essie Harris, a woman in a dark smock who held a worn disposable camera. “I bet it’s exciting to be on it.”

As Nettie Young made her way home, she looked forward to a nap. She didn’t know when she would next ride the ferry. Not anytime soon. On Wednesday, she’s heading to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco to sing gospel songs.

jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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