updated 9/15/2006 7:25:23 PM ET 2006-09-15T23:25:23

In 1962, as the civil rights movement was picking up speed, the ferry along this stretch of the Alabama River was shut down in what was widely seen as an attempt by whites to prevent blacks from the town of Gee's Bend from coming across the water to vote or take part in demonstrations.

The shutdown of the 15-minute ferry ride meant that the people of poor, mostly black Gee's Bend had to drive more than 40 miles over narrow rural roads to get to the county courthouse in Camden, then 40 miles back. And it has been that way ever since.

On Monday, though, ferry service will resume for the first time in 44 years.

After a frustratingly long effort, Gee's Bend residents will be closer to jobs, stores, medical care and county offices.

"It's going to be a really big deal to get the ferry going," said Wilcox County Commission President David Manzie. "It's so isolated on that side of the river that even the bread truck was only going down there once a week."

Honored quilt-makers
Gee's Bend, which is about 60 miles southwest of Montgomery and is all but cut off by a bend in the river, dates back to the Civil War. Many of its residents are descendants of former slaves who worked the area's plantations, and some are celebrated quilt-makers recently honored on a U.S. stamp.

The ferry was closed down at a time when blacks were demonstrating for the right to vote in Camden and other towns across Alabama. "They took this boat away to isolate those people and to exclude them," said Ken Mullinax, an aide to former Rep. Earl Hilliard, D-Ala., who obtained the initial funding to buy a ferry.

With local, state and federal dignitaries on hand, the new Gee's Bend Ferry will be christened at a ceremony on the Camden side of the river.

The ferry will make a trip across the water earlier Monday to pick up some of the ladies of the Gee's Bend Quilting Cooperative, some of whose colorful, stunningly designed quilts have been exhibited in museums. Ten Gee's Bend quilt designs are being printed as part of the Postal Service's American Treasures stamp series.

Image: Willie Q. Pettway
Rob Carr  /  AP
Willie Q. Pettway talks about the new ferry in Gee's Bend, Ala.

One of the quilters, Mary Ann Pettway, who recalls riding the ferry at age 5 or 6, said she hopes the new ferry service will entice more people to visit the small building next door to the Gee's Bend Volunteer Fire Department, where some of the community's famous quilts are displayed and sold.

"This is going to be a raise in the paychecks for the people here as far as I'm concerned. They won't have to drive around to go to work," said Gee's Bend resident Melvin Pettway, a police officer in Camden, population 2,200.

The road to the opening of the new ferry has been about as long and bumpy as the trip by car between Gee's Bend to Camden. More than 10 years ago, $500,000 in federal money was set aside for a ferry, but the project ran into various delays until a $2 million federal grant in 2004 became available.

'People who have been ignored'
The boat will be operated by the state for a year. Then it could be turned over to Wilcox County, one of the poorest counties in the state.

Image: Quilts of Gee's Bend
John Bazemore  /  AP
Susan Crawley, folk art curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, speaks in front of a quilt at the museum's exhibition of "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" in April.

"This will be transportation for those people who have been ignored for so many years," said Alabama Transportation Director Joe McInnes.

Hornblower Marine Services, which will manage ferry operations, plans five or six runs a day. Rides will be free at first, then in October will cost $3 for a car and driver, and $1 for an additional person or a pedestrian.

Marvin Carter, a teacher at Wilcox Central High School in Camden, said the opening of the ferry is also important for people who live on the Camden side of the river. He said it will make it easier for students who live in Gee's Bend to participate in football practice and other activities at the high school.

"It's going to save them a ton of money on gas," Carter said. "This is overdue, way overdue." He added: "This is the biggest deal we're going to have this year. We don't have much going on here except for Friday night football and the ferry."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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