Mother of quiltmaker China Pettway, Leola Pettway is one of the few women to have achieved recognition—primarily for her "Star" quilts—outside of Gee's Bend.
I started out piecing quilts when I was eleven years old. We didn't have nothing to make quilts like folks have now. Some old piece of rags, old dresses that was too raggly to wear, that's all. I cut these little blocks with my hands, made me a whole black-and-white quilt. Eleven years old. After I pieced it, my auntie Deborah Young teach me to quilt it.
I was a outlaw child, didn't know my daddy. My mother didn't raise me after she married and left with that man Ottoway Pettway—Lucy T. and them's granddaddy. My mother went to work for a man they called Deaf Doc. He ran the ferry over to Camden.
I plowed; I broke up land. We had a horse was named Sarah, plowed, and us people made so much cotton. But didn't get nothing for it. My uncle Reverend Spurlin Pettway would spread the fertilizer with his mule and a hand fertilizer distributor, and I was behind, planting the cotton with one of them hand cotton planters. I started smoking then. Had to smoke behind that stinking horse I was plowing. I don't start in the field like some children, nine or ten. I was about fifteen. My granddaddy had married Lottie Pettway after his first wife had been dead. Lottie was Creola's sister what died with her up there, and they had two children. I had to raise them two little boys, so I was late starting in the fields.
I was born in 1929 in one of them old log-board crib kind of house. My first cousin Arcola—Deborah Young's oldest child—she lived with us. We used to steal back there to the branch and get in that water and call ourselves swimming. Weren't enough water to swim, but there weren't nothing to do back then for fun. When they put the cotton on the porch after they pick it, we roll around and play in it. We couldn't go nowhere. Didn't have nothing. Somebody give me a pair of beads once to wear. Lot of children was playing once and my beads got stole. I reckon I cried and cried. When you don't have much and it gets missing, you have to cry. I got plenty of beads now.
We used to go to a school down here, down a hill a piece and up in the woods. I went in there some, maybe two days a week. I was old then, about sixteen or seventeen when I started. They passed me to seventh grade. I was very apt, learnt good, arithmetic, and I teach all my children. I just didn't get to spend much time in school. I had four children when my mama sent me down to Mobile to work and try to get some money. I only stayed a month or two, babysitting and keeping house, and had sent the checks home. Somebody from up in the Bend come to Mobile and tell me my mama was sick, and I took a bus back home and got there, my mama had died and was in the funeral home. I stayed on home with my children. I was a good person. I didn't do bad things. The bad things I did, I did to have to raise my children. I had to be the man—I was a lady but had to be the man, too—had to bust wood, do all the work it take to care for a family, and had to keep people from running over us. They tried to put us out one time, but I said, "Put me out, we coming right back."
I ended up with ten children. Had eleven, but one died. The Lord helped me raise them, feed them. We always have enough to eat, clothes to wear. Lord blessed us. Still blessing. I got religion when I was staying down there, seventeen years old. Reverend William Carey—Rachel Carey George's daddy—he baptized me up here in the creek. I come through hard, but making it pretty good now with the help of the Lord. I can't talk no more about how I come up. It hurt to think back on it.