Given the name "J.T." at her birth, the quiltmaker has always been known as "Bootnie"—and since her school days has called herself "Jessie," after her favorite teacher.
I was born and raised right down there in the White community, they call it, in Gee's Bend. The man over the community at that time was Mr White, the plantation manager. That's why they call it that. The official name then was Primrose, Alabama. My daddy was Joe Benning, but he never lived with us. I saw him regular when I was young. He wasn't living too far from us, and I run into him a lot. Back then we was walking to school about five miles, from down there to the old school up by Arlonzia house. I got to eleventh grade. My mother, Channie Pettway, died at an early age and leave the younger children, me and my sister Lola and my brother Lee Foster, to her sister, Seebell Kennedy, my aunt who raised us. We'd do our chores every morning before school, clean up the room and milk the cow, and after we'd get back, we'd do our homework. Then Little Sis—that's what we called my aunt Seebell—she'd give us lessons on how to cut out pieces and piece up quilts and help her quilt her own quilts, and that's how I learned. My first quilt was a "Eight-Pointed Star." I kept it until I married and the children wore it out on the bed. I was about twelve when I started making quilts on my own. We mostly made string quilts out of old clothes and overalls we tore up for pieces—khaki shirts and stuff. Sometimes cousins from Mobile bring us old clothes for making quilts. My aunt had a old book of patterns that she sometime used, but I didn't like no book patterns. I couldn't buy pretty materials, so I couldn't make pretty patterns. I like what folks called "Bricklayer" 'cause you could make it into something pretty with any old kind of cloth.
Before I married, I worked in the fields at home with my uncle Alp Kennedy and my aunt. Hoed cotton, corn, peas, peanuts, sweet potatoes. We farmed some of everything. Had gardens with different kinds of vegetables—all kinds. Everything we needed we raised it ourselves. Killed hogs, goats—barbecued them goats and they was delicious. When I married and came up here, I married into the same thing—same field work, same crops. Me and my husband, Monroe Pettway, farmed together for twenty years, from 1955 to 1975. Then I started working at the day care for Tinnie Dell. Monroe and me had nine children—seven girls, two boys.
I been here my whole life. I'm seventy-one now. Things don't change too much—maybe a little, but I don't see no great change. White folks get a little nicer, laughing with you now, but it's phony. Don't mean nothing. After the civil rights, we got treated a little better at the stores over in Camden. We do have a chance to buy more now. We buy our food now—don't make it—but I wouldn't say the food is better now, or that we got more of it. We had plenty of food back then. Good food, too.