During the Great Depression, government representatives learned that Gee's Bend had unofficial leaders, including Little Pettway and his wife, Martha Jane, who helped persuade the other families to participate in the New Deal social programs and were among the first to purchase a "Roosevelt" house. Their son Nathan (1914-2002), husband of quiltmaker Louella Pettway, recounted some of the earlier times.
My father was Little Pettway. He was kind of a leader of the community, and it was him that got the project started here. That project cut the land up in parts; each was so many acres. My mother, Martha Jane, and Little got about seventy-five acres; they got so many acres out in the swamp and so many around the house. My mama had fifteen children, five boys and ten girls, and I was the oldest, and ten of them is dead now. We growed our own food and had some hogs. It was rough on us, but we made it. We hunted all the time then—rabbits and squirrels.
My mama and them didn't have nothing good to make them quilts out of, but they made quilts for us children. They get old odd stuff, whatever they could find, and make a quilt out of it. It would last a year sometimes, and then us tear it up before the year out. My mama teach the older girls to quilt. Yeah, Plummer T., my sister, now she could quilt. I don't know nothing about what those quilts looked like, other than I slept under them.
We moved to Montgomery when I was about six years old, and Mama lost a daughter up there. They was building a bridge across the river in Montgomery, and my daddy go up there to work on it. My first job was in Montgomery. Me and my mama go pick berries and go downtown and sell them. We stayed about a year and then came back here. I was tired of school after I come here. I didn't go to school over three months. One teacher be teaching twenty or thirty children. Go in the old schoolhouse there, and it'd rain sometimes and we'd get under the table to keep from getting wet. Them people from Washington come down here and have a meeting up there where the day-care center is at, and they start the project. My father, he represent the peoples at that meeting.
My mother also worked in the fields and the swamp. She'd have a baby and walk out of the swamp at twelve o'clock and let him suck, and then go back into the swamp to work. One of them little girls take care of the baby. They farmed in the swamp: cotton, corn, peas, sweet potatoes—and growed okra one year. Mama liked to go in the fields, but after us got just about grown, she quit going there and stayed in the house. She still alive, living in Mobile now, 103 years old.
My father was a Teener, not a Pettway. I don't know where they came from. My father was born and raised down here. He go up to places like Tennessee and Montgomery and talk to them head folks. We wouldn't have been down in here if he hadn't have done that. We could have still farmed, but after they went to putting timber on the land, the white folks would have been running us off. They was wanting to be down in here. See, all those people across the river and back up the road there, they wanted to come down here. After the integration started, Herbert Hall Wilkinson was running them away from up there. Them white folks was alarmed when we get in those marches, and the white folks try to get us to go away. I went on a couple marches. A lot of the people from down here marched. A lot of my family was big into the marches.