Estelle Witherspoon is the daughter of Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams. One of the Freedom Quilting Bee's founding members and its long-time co-manager, Witherspoon was active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and getting arrested in 1971 during an un-permitted march for school desegregation.
My grandmother learned to quilt from her mother. All I've ever known is people quilting all their lives here. From generation to generation. That's where it comes from I'd say. We'd been quilting for home use. And then a white minister started buying a few quilts from different peoples. And one thing led to another, and we formed a cooperative. There's a manager and a production manager. We don't get a weekly salary. But after all the expenses have been taken out, the profit is divided between the members. Some women got as much as seven hundred dollars last year for their share. It depends on how much your group turns out.
A candidate for Sheriff came over and bought a quilt for ninety dollars. He said he'd come back. We decided to vote for him, but not because of that. We're still waiting for him to return.
We quilt in different patterns. The traditional patterns come from way back—our mothers and our grandmothers. There's the "Bear's Paw" and the "Crazy Quilt". The "Bear's Paw" is hardest. It's designed with fingers and you've got to quilt between the fingers—just so. "Crazy Quilt" is pieced up crazy; "Grandmother's Choice" runs catty-cornered; and "Grandmother's Dream" runs straight-like.
We don't have time to make quilts ourselves, and we can't afford to buy them. Some sell for as much as two hundred dollars. And we're just the workers. But quilting's fun.