I was born December 29, 1960, in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. As a young child living in Gee’s Bend, I grew up on a farm and had to work in the fields. Because of my young age, I was only allowed to carry water to those who were big enough to chop cotton and the other things that we grew in our fields. Our field was located in an area called Carson, although my grandfather had two fields, one in Carson and the other one located in a place called Hotel (some people called it Long Bottom). Hotel was the area where the old cemetery was located. There my family grew cotton, corn, peanuts, and sweet potatoes, just to name a few of our crops.
We started our day early because my mother had to make breakfast and lunch so we could carry our lunch with us to the fields. When I got a little older, about eight years old, I also helped with getting the meals prepared, and now I was old enough to chop and pick cotton. This was not an easy job, and I can remember we hardly ever complained. And even if we did, we were only wasting time and energy. In my early teens, cotton started to fade away, and only a few people who were a little more well-off than the rest continued with planting cotton. So we “hired out,” working for those who had a bigger farm. To pick a hundred pounds of cotton a day was really hard for me because I was so small, but I am sure it was no problem for my grandfather, Tank Pettway, because he was a big, tall man. It was not long before cotton completely faded away from Gee’s Bend and another crop of hard work was born—the birth of cucumbers.
Roman Pettway, the community entrepreneur, introduced Gee’s Bend to a new mode of farming. Cucumbers were the “new cotton,” but thank God, the season for cucumber picking was very short, from late May to the first week in July. We knew when the month of July came it would not be long before we could finally have a summer break. Growing cucumbers lasted for nearly a decade, and many families planted a second crop because this was a quicker and faster way to earn income. My family and others planted their own gardens and grew almost all the vegetables needed to survive the winter months. I learned to can vegetables and to make plum and blackberry jelly and jams.
My mother Qunnie Pettway’s first paying job was working at the Freedom Quilting Bee. Her paycheck was not a whole lot, and sometimes she would have to work several weeks before getting any pay. During her absence, my oldest brother and I had to do most of the household chores. We didn’t have a water pump of our own, so we carried water from my aunt Lucy T. Pettway’s house. We also carried water from a natural spring, a spring called Cross Spring. Some of the men in the community tailored the spring into a well by damming it up with barrels; this made it much easier to obtain the water. The water was used to cook and wash our clothes. We also heated our bathwater in the same wash pot we used to wash our clothes. By the time I turned about fifteen, we got running water and paved roads. Now that the roads were paved and we had running water, washing, cleaning, riding the school bus, and walking got a lot better.
Aunt Lucy was the sister of my father, Tom O. Pettway, Jr. An interesting thing is that Aunt Lucy’s middle name was Tomo. Because so many people in Gee’s Bend have the name of Pettway, people get middle names that let others know who their fathers are, so nobody marries a close cousin by mistake. My father and his father carry the middle initial O. for Ottaway, a name that goes back to an original Pettway slave called Ottaway.
I can recall that I was about five or six years old when I was first introduced to sewing. At that age we were only allowed to thread the needles for the quilters in my grandmother’s and my mother’s quilting group. The leftover scraps are what we got to sew and piece together, practicing on how to make a real quilt. We never actually made a quilt, because the leftover pieces were so small in size, so I looked for something else more interesting to do than sticking my fingers with a needle. During grade school the bulk of my school clothes were homemade by my mother, Qunnie Pettway; she has always had a passion for sewing. Since quilting and making quilts were such a big part of my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and my aunt’s life, I believe the seed of quiltmaking was planted into my genes. Whenever we would go to either aunt Lucy T. Pettway’s or aunt Ruth Mosely’s houses to play during the summer months, they would always say, “Come here, sit down and learn how to sew.”
During the winter months, we helped my mother and grandmother with their quilts, and they would let us practice on some of them, but tacking quilts was now the new thing and we could tack several quilts in a day. Tacking is where you use yarn with a large needle by making one stitch, and you tie the yarn on top of the quilt to hold the quilt top and backing together. In my junior year of high school about four to six of us from Gee’s Bend were given a project to do in Home Economics class, making a baby quilt for our H.E. teacher, for her first grandbaby. I had the last and final part of the project, which was to make sure the quilt was quilted. My mother helped me to complete our project. I made and kept a copy of that baby-quilt pattern, and most of the baby quilts that I have made and given away are copies of that pattern. It consists of baby clothes appliquéd onto a white background, with the clothes hanging from two clotheslines, with a bird and a cloud in the upper corner. The baby’s name, along with the birth date and weight, was done with embroidery on the band and pockets of the small overalls.
My Grandfather Tank Pettway was a very tall, light-skin-tone man. He didn’t talk a lot, normally, but weekends were different. He talked. That’s when we would hear stories about his mother. He would always say, “I am old lady Sally [Miller]’s son.” He would tell us the part about his mother being a squaw (she was half-Indian) and a midwife, which was something that brought great pride to my grandfather. I heard stories about his grandmother Dinah, told by Arlonzia Pettway (my mother’s first cousin). She would tell stories about Dinah coming over from Africa.
Growing up in Gee’s Bend as a young girl, I kind of knew what my life was going to be like. It would consist of learning how to cook, sewing, doing laundry, and cleaning up, because someday I would get married and have a family. I attended school in Gee’s Bend until seventh grade. During this time, the South and Wilcox County were introduced to integration and desegregation, and the school in Gee’s Bend was closed down. We were bused to Camden High School, in Camden, Alabama, for the first year. The forty-mile bus ride to Camden would take about two hours (there was a lot of stopping for pickups). In order to arrive at school on time, we would catch the bus about 6 AM every day. The school bus would always be overloaded, three persons to a seat, and when there were no more seats the remaining of us students would stand for the entire long ride. In other words, the last fifteen students or so that boarded the bus would have to stand.
The next year we did not attend Camden High. Instead, we were bused to Pine Hill Consolidated School, in Pine Hill, Alabama, which was also a two-hour bus ride from Gee’s Bend. We went there for about six weeks, and then we were transferred to Pine Hill High School, about the same distance away, a two-hour bus ride. We were very limited in after-school activities, such as participating in sports, because of the long bus ride. Although the bus ride was very difficult to deal with, we made it. And after four years and thousands of miles of traveling to and from school on a crowded school bus, we were never involved in any accidents, thank God.
When I was about fourteen years old I pieced my first quilt. It was supposed to be a “Flower Garden,” which was a very popular quilt pattern around the early-to-mid-seventies. As to what happened to the quilt, I really don’t know.
After graduating from High School in 1978, I married my high-school sweetheart, Lovett Bennett, on July 7, 1979. He enlisted in the U.S. Army right out of high school, and by this time he was stationed in Germany, in a small town by the name of Blankenheim. In November of the same year I joined him in Germany, and this was a real culture shock. I don’t mean Germany itself, I mean the small isolated town of Blankenheim. In the military, all soldiers are referred to by their last name. That’s why I am accustomed to calling my husband “Bennett” (a hard habit to break). In Bennett’s unit there were only twenty-nine American soldiers; there was no American housing area, no American television, no American radio to listen to. Although American Forces Network (AFN) did broadcast, we were so far away and the reception was very poor. Therefore, we had to live and communicate speaking their language, German. We were isolated to the point that we only received mail three times a week—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—on a good week. This was a very cold but beautiful country. I never saw so much snow in all my nineteen years of life. The Germans were not big on having a lot of different colors, especially not on their houses, cars, and clothing, compared to Americans. But in the springtime things were different. I got to see another side of Germany, as many houses were decorated with flower boxes of red geraniums and pansies sitting on the window ledges, with white and black-trimmed houses in the background.
As a junior in high school I took a French class, not knowing that a few years later I would actually have the opportunity of hearing a different form of French being spoken. Bennett was not only working with German soldiers, he also worked with Belgian and Flemish soldiers. We both took some German classes, which made our traveling in and around the countryside easier and more fun. I struggled some with the German language, but it was a breeze for Bennett. We traveled to many places in Germany such as Bonn, Frankfurt, Kaiserslautern, Trier, Cologne, the Black Forest, Innsbruck, Munich, Berchtesgaden, Hilter’s house at Obersalzberg, and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, just to name a few. We also visited the famous Neuschwanstein Castle (this is the castle that is shown at the beginning of Walt Disney movies). We also visited the Eagle’s Nest, which was one of Hitler’s summer resorts. We traveled to several other countries such as Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria (where the 1976 Winter Olympics took place). We also visited the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, and later on we visited Rotterdam, which is also located in the Netherlands. We grew to like it there so much we extended our tour an extra year. We lived in Germany from November 1979 until September 1982.
I can recall I did make a quilt in 1981 during my stay in Blankenheim. The quilt was a “Dresden Flower Plate” appliqué on a white background. The flowers were bright red, blue, green, and pink. During this time, we lived in a three-family house with our German landlord, Karone. She and her daughter Brigitte taught me how to knit. We also improved on each other’s language, cooking, and customs. For my remaining stay in Germany, I did a lot of reading and I also knitted scarves and a sweater for Bennett.
In September 1982 we moved—or as the Army calls it, “Permanent Change of Station” (PCS)—to El Paso, Texas. That was my first time in El Paso, but this was not the first time for Bennett. This is where he started and completed his basic training. El Paso was very different from Germany. The climate was very hot and dry. We were now living in a desert environment, with cactus, tumbleweeds, and lots of dust storms. In El Paso we encountered another language setback. The majority of the people spoke Spanish, because Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso border each other. The only thing that separates the two is a bridge that crosses the Rio Grande. On a visit to Juarez, I could not help from noticing displays of an array of red and green chili peppers. The clothing and cars also displayed bright yellow, orange, pink, and purple colors. We enjoyed our visit to Juarez very much. We didn’t bother too hard to try to learn Spanish because we knew our stay in El Paso would be short-lived.
In May 1984, it was time to move again—as the Army would say, PCS—back to Germany, this time Burbach. Burbach also was a small and isolated town. There, Bennett worked with the German Air Force, but our living conditions there were somewhat better than the last time. We lived in a small American/German community, and this time we got mail five days a week, but still no American television. Burbach was much colder than Blankenheim. Occasionally we had to turn on the heat during the summer months. I can recall one summer we were greeted with a summer shower of white snow on the fourth of July in 1984. During the fall of that same year, some of the soldiers’ wives noticed some of my mother Qunnie Pettway’s quilts on my beds, and they were so impressed with her style of quilting they asked if there was any way possible to buy some of her quilts. I wrote and asked my mother to send me some of her quilts so I could sell them for her. She did, and I sold quite a few of her quilts during my second stay in Germany.
The winters were extremely cold and the snow seemed to always be waist deep. We had to shovel snow three to four times a day for three years. Brian, our oldest son, turned six, and it was time for him to start school. Brian, along with four other American kids, had to ride for nearly an hour to attend the nearest Department of Defense School (an American school). There were no school buses. Therefore, they had to take a German taxi to school every day using the German Autobahn—what we would call “the interstate” here in the United States. The only difference is that on the German Autobahn there is no speed limit. As parents, we were always on pins and needles as we waited for them to arrive home safely each day.
It is now March 1987, and we moved (PCS) back to the States, and I had the opportunity to go back and live in Gee’s Bend for three months while Bennett attended Warrant Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. During my stay I was introduced to piecing quilts for a second time with my mother, grandmother, and Aunt Lucy T. Pettway, my father’s sister. We would make weekly trips to Selma to buy scraps of cloth that sold for two dollars per bag. I can remember that the colors were mostly red, green, blue, and yellow polka dots. I tried my hand at making a “Bow Tie” quilt, and I made two matching green polka dot quilts. I later gave them both away, and sadly to say, they were lost in a house fire. My Aunt Lucy T. gave me a quilt pattern, “Carpenter’s Wheel.” I tried to make it but there were too many triangles and squares. That pattern block would travel with me back to El Paso, to Germany, back to El Paso, and it is still traveling with me to this day. I would love to complete this quilt one day in memory of my late aunt Lucy T. Pettway.
Time goes by quickly, but we like to explore places. In August 1987 we moved again from Gee’s Bend back to El Paso, Texas. During this stay in El Paso, we visited White Sands, New Mexico. There I saw the most beautiful, breathtaking mounds and mounds of nothing but white sand. It was like an entire white desert, instead of the usual brown, sandy, and dusty desert, and this one was a great deal more pleasant to look at. I also visited Alamogordo and Ruidoso, New Mexico; Ruidoso reminded me a lot of Germany because the scenery was draped in snow and there were lots of very tall pine and cedar trees. Our son Brian was now nine years old, and it’s time for me to stop being a stay-at-home mom, so I went back to school and became a medical assistant. After I graduated I worked for an ob-gyn doctor for a short period of time before moving on again.
It’s time to move again. In June 1989, we moved back to Germany again, this time to Bitburg, Germany. Bitburg was a lot better than the last two places we lived. We lived on Bitburg Air Base. Brian walked to school and I also walked to my job. I worked at the base commissary (large American grocery store). The base exchange, or BX (an American shopping center), was across the street from where we lived. There I bought American cloth and other sewing materials, so I tried my hand again at piecing quilts. This time I made a “Double Wedding Ring” and a couple of baby quilts during my days off from work. It took me nearly three years to complete the “Wedding Ring.” Once I completed it, I had my mother quilt it. I didn’t work very long at the commissary; the Air Force had a dental assistant training program that I enrolled in and completed, and started working for the air force as a dental assistant. I enjoyed very much working in the medical field. I did not know this would be our last stay in Germany, but it was great to witness some of history’s most memorable events that took place from 1989 to 1990, events such as the Berlin Wall torn down, the Brandenburg Gate opened, and Germany once again reunited. We lived there until August 1992.
It’s August 1992, and time to move again, this time to Decatur, Alabama, which is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Gee’s Bend. By this time, my mother had completed quilting my “Double Wedding Ring,” and I put the final touch on it by hemming it. I made another baby quilt, this time for my niece in North Carolina. We only lived in Decatur for one year.
It’s now September 1993, and we moved again, this time back to El Paso, Texas. I made only babies’ quilts then because our second son, Brandon, was on the way. We still loved to travel, so we checked out Albuquerque, New Mexico, again, and the underground caves in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Making quilts of any size was really on the back burner now, because in 1995 I became a Jehovah’s Witness, preaching from door to door. In 1996 we visited Tucson, Arizona, for a three-day convention—another hot place, but lots of rain showers like mist from a water sprinkler. In April 1997, our third son, Byron (“B.J”), came to us, and we were only a couple of months away before my husband finished his twenty-year military career, and we were preparing for our final and last move back to Huntsville, Alabama. Unfortunately, my Grandmother Candis Pettway died the last week in May, so we returned to Gee’s Bend to attend her funeral. I remained in Gee’s Bend along with our two boys, and Bennett went back to El Paso to oversee the packing for our last and final PCS move to finish off his military career.
The next couple of years were really busy now, with two small boys around the house and no time for sewing. It’s 1999 now, and the boys are in school. I tried my hand at quilting once again. I made a small-squared brown-and-beige quilt and quilted it in a lap loop. My oldest son Brian liked it so much he took it with him back to Austin, Texas. My mother and a few others were still making quilts, although it seemed like piecing quilts was slowly disappearing from the younger generation of Gee’s Benders, and that worried me. Therefore, in 2001 I applied for and received a fellowship grant from the Alabama State Archive Council on the Arts for my mother to teach me the fine art and every small detail of quilting. The “Pine Burr” quilt was designated the official quilt of the state of Alabama by the legislature on March 11, 1997. We chose for our project the Alabama State Quilt, the “Pine Burr,” which was not the easiest quilt to make, but with her help I took the challenge and we successfully completed it on time. In 2005 I donated the quilt to the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The quilt hangs on display in the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
The first quilt shows of Gee’s Bend quilts opened in Houston, Texas, in September 2002. There my eyes were opened, and it touched me in a way as to question myself: Can I make a quilt that someday might hang on the wall of a museum? At that time, according to me, the answer was, No way, no way—not after seeing my relatives’ quilts hanging in a museum; they had been making quilts for generation after generation. Several months passed and the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition opened in New York; still I had not made any quilts. Finally, after hearing all the great news reports about my ancestors’ quilts, I decided to try my hand at it. After all, I am an offspring of some of the great quiltmakers from Gee’s Bend. I came to realize that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and piece a quilt together.
It’s 2006 now, and I have been asked, Could my quiltmaking colors and styles have anything to do with my traveling to different countries, cities, and other states? It is very likely that moving around so much could have influenced my style of quiltmaking because I am somewhat of a shy person and tend to like colors and things that are simple and plain, but I will let you be the judge of that. Although I am not a painter, someday I would like very much to try my hand at painting.