The middle of three quiltmaking sisters in Gee’s Bend (the others being Sweet T. and Lutisha), Allie Pettway talks about the difficult days of growing up as a subsistence farmer and the consolation that comes from making quilts with friends and relatives.
I was born in 1917. My mother was named Patty Pettway, my daddy was named Warren Pettway. They farmed. I was a little girl when my mother passed. My daddy remarried after my mother passed, and I had one of the hardest times you going to have. I started raising the little children, my brothers and sisters, and I had to go to the fields and work in the mud and water. And my stepmother was kind of really mean. I do the best I could.
I came up hard. In the fields I was hoeing corn, picking cotton, pulling fodder. You know, they use to pull fodder and tie it up, scratch peanuts, strip millet. My daddy planted rice, and they had a thing that they beat it. They beat that rice and we has to get down there in that swamp, pick that old black-looking rice, I hate to talk about it ’cause it was so bad. But I lived. Thank God, the Lord brought me and he’s still bringing me. And I can’t complain about things I have ’cause I know how I come, and I come hard. You know how it is with a man when he’s got another woman—my daddy. So the Lord brought me.
I grow up right up here on the hill where my brother Yancy live—right there from Lutisha, my sister, where she died.
I didn’t go nowhere in school. First grade or second grade, or something like that. No, I didn’t have nobody to make me go. You know how it was with girls. I didn’t go and I didn’t learn anything. I had to try to do the best I could.
I was seventeen when I got married. Got married and had a hard time when I got married, you know, ’cause he didn’t have anything neither. John the Baptist Pettway, ’cause his mother got religion with him, so she named him John the Baptist. His mother was Henrietta Pettway. We stayed right across in those woods there, when we first got married. They call this down in here where I’m at, call it “Hotel,” where the cemetery’s at, on the hill. That’s where my daddy is. My husband and me farmed, took the babies, farmed cotton, corn, peas, peanuts, and everything like you do farm. I had thirteen head, excusing the three that passed.
My mother-in-law, Henrietta Pettway, she was staying down here the whole time that I know her since I was a little girl, ’cause John the Baptist come from up here, come right on down to my house to court me. After while, after we got married, they moved us right here—me, John the Baptist, Henrietta, and her children stay right here together. Henrietta would go to the field and help us some, but when she got old she would stay home and tend to the children. Took care of my children, that’s what your mother would do. Lola, she was one of the youngest of my children. She married right here in this house and then moved up to Sodom.
I learned quilting by myself, messing up quilts, doing the best I could, you know, by being a young girl and didn’t know how, just piecing whatever I could get, sewing it together trying to make quilts. That’s the only way I learned, and after that, when I got married, after while, I learned pretty good. I got good ideas from my mother-in-law, Henrietta. Me and her sewed together. When I had children I had to do better. Made quilts out of old dress tails, shirt tails, that’s the way I did so the children would be covered up.
Later on we started quilting up there to Candis Pettway house. I wanted to go up to Estelle Witherspoon, she had the quilting bee up in Rehoboth. My husband was trying to get under Social Security, and they didn’t let me work much up there ’cause they say I couldn’t work and he get the money from the govern- ment. Estelle still try to keep me and pay me undercover, but John say, “No, it’s best you don’t go up there,” so I didn’t. Estelle was so sweet, she was so nice.
Candis started the little group: Candis, Red [Candis’s daughter Qunnie], [Lucy] Mingo, and sometimes my daughter Lola came by—she was kind of young, didn’t come by too much. We sit out there in the yard, under that old sugarball tree, and sew together. You could walk by and see us there most every day. It went on a long time. Then me and Mingo went to quilting right out there in that little house in the front yard. My grandson Frank built it for us. Everybody piece by themselves, you know, but help one another quilt it.