Most women in the 1930s could have been forgiven for feeling daunted by the prospect of moving from Los Angeles to rural Alabama for their husband’s new job—especially if they had been hoping to complete their PhD, only to discover there were no local colleges with the necessary resources.
Ruth Clement Bond faced this very predicament in 1934 when her husband, J. Max Bond, was recruited for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s mammoth project to build the Wheeler Dam in Rogersville, Alabama, as part of the New Deal economic initiative. As Director of Negro Personnel and Education, Max was the TVA’s most senior Black executive whereas Ruth—who had already left her job as chair of a college English department, as well as her PhD, to look after their first child, Jane—had no hope of pursuing her academic ambitions there.
Nothing if not resourceful, she decided to work with the wives of the dam’s construction workers to help advance their and their families’ well-being. All the women were Black, as was Ruth, but their backgrounds were very different. Ruth was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1904, one of the seven children of a bishop and his highly educated wife who instilled their commitment to learning and community service in their kids and were able to provide formal schooling for all of them. By contrast, the TVA workers and their families had previously subsisted as sharecroppers with little to no access to education.
The Bonds chose to live in one of the cottages built for the workers in a segregated village to better understand the reality of their neighbors’ lives. For many of these families, building the dam was their first opportunity to earn enough money to decorate their homes, and Ruth felt that some of the women struggled to spend their newfound money practically. “They were buying pianos with cash, and they couldn’t get them into their cottages,” she recalled in a 1992 oral history interview. “These country women were buying things they didn’t need yet weren’t fixing up their houses.”
Ruth started a program to empower these women to use their amateur design and crafting skills—many of which they had learned from their mothers and grandmothers—to beautify their homes. She persuaded TVA’s cooks to donate cornhusks and feed sacks to be dyed and made into rugs and curtains. Some of the women were so skillful that they could teach the others, and several proved particularly adept at the historic craft of quilting. Ruth realized that quilting both connected them to their families’ crafting traditions, and also enabled them to explore their own cultural identities. She designed paper patterns for a series of pictorial quilts that depicted the opportunities for Black people created by the New Deal, to be made by the women.
Ruth’s designs deployed the bold colors and forms of modern art to chart the unfolding changes in Black culture. Six quilts were made. One, named Black Power, portrays a Black fist clenching a bolt of lightning. Another shows a Black man trying to choose between his old way of life and a New Deal job. Man with Crane depicts a Black construction worker issuing instructions on site. Each quilt represents a confident and dynamic—if somewhat overly optimistic—portrayal of the new possibilities for Black people.
The Bonds left Alabama in 1938 and spent much of the next thirty years living in Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other countries where Max was posted by his new employer, the State Department. Ruth taught in universities in many of those places while also running women’s skills workshops as she had in Alabama. After Max retired in 1966, they lived in Washington, D.C., and joined the boards of prominent organizations (Ruth served as president of the African-American Women’s Association). Like her parents, she and Max—who died in 2005 and 1991 respectively—instilled a commitment to social progress in their children, each of whom excelled in their chosen field: Jane as a historian, Max in architecture, and George as an anthropologist.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. Her books include Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, and, most recently, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, co-authored with Paola Antonelli and published by Phaidon.