Ella Mae Irby
The family of Delia Bennett (1892-1976) includes many of Gee's Bend's most talented quiltmakers. Bennett's daughter Ella Mae Irby passed the tradition to a third generation—her daughter Linda Diane Bennett (1955-1988). Irby talks about her life.
Wasn't no happy stuff back then. Didn't have nothing to be happy with. Mama, if we got ever to a flour biscuit she'd take one biscuit and break it in four piece. Didn't have much. Come up hard.
We farmed. Lived on the Brown plantation, under what they called "landlords." Cotton, corn, peas, sorghum syrup, hogs, cows . . . Back at that time you worked for thirty cents, forty cents a day, and out of that you pay the landlords. . . . Time was hard. They call it "advancing" back in those days. The Man wouldn't give you nothing but meat and meal, wouldn't give you no flour, sugar, or nothing else—you had to hustle for extra stuff. . . . We picked cotton and things but it wasn't for us. It was for the white man, the boss man. Old Man Spurlin. They lived in Camden. We didn't get nothing for doing it. We had to do it 'cause we was living on his plantation. He took every last bit of it. Did not give us nothing.
Play with one another, only fun we had. Jacks, hopscotch. Played in the dirt—we was already raggly. We'd put dirt all over you: that was playing. That was good, throwing dirt on one another.
We'd go to the church, Mama fix up dresses for us. Learnt us how to do it, too—dresses out of fertilizer sacks. Fertilizer called "6-8-2," one big number. That number stayed right there on the dresses and shirts. Couldn't never get it off. Dyed them blue; one of them yellow. We bought dye at the store. You get all the dye you want for a nickel. Different dress for each Sunday—one for the first, one for the second. Went to church barefeeted. Had a hard time but the Good Lord made a way for us, blessed us to do better.
Mama do all the cooking, cleaning—everything had to be did, she did it. Then she'd go to the field, too. We start about seven, then about ten o'clock she go home try to find something to cook—a little greens and peas, something such as that. I was twenty-eight years old when I had my first child, Lue Ida Bennett. Got married when I was thirty-two to Addison Irby.