1896 - 1973

Hannah Wilcox

Alberta, Alabama
About

Groups of older women formerly traveled around the community to help others, especially younger women, quilt their tops. In Rehoboth, Hannah Wilcox organized one such quilting circle. Her granddaughter and protégé, Mensie Lee Pettway, fondly remembers her.

She was born in Rehoboth in 1896. Rehoboth was just a little country town with a little post office. The white people that owned most of the land around there was the Laird family. They had a big farm, and most of the black peoples on this side of the river worked for them. Hannah Wilcox was my grandmother, the mother of my daddy, Anthony Irby. Her mother was named Lucy Wilcox, and her father Jeff Wilcox Sr. They farmed down below Rehoboth toward Pine Grove Baptist Church, land owned by S.J. Hardy. They would make the cotton crop, take it to the gin and it would be baled up and sold, and the money was put against their advancement. The way it worked was like this: the man that owned the land would advance them everything they need and the crop would pay against it. If there is something left over, you got that. Some of the years, you didn't make enough to pay out. You didn't get no money for clothes or shoes or stuff. They would call it "a bad crop year." They'd tell you, "If you had a-made one more bale, you'd a got out." But you just had to take what they said and go on. That was life in those days, that I can remember. My grandmother worked the fields along with everybody else. I remember seeing her piecing quilts. They would get the old dresses, tear them up in pieces, in strips, and put them together. I never saw her use a sewing machine. Everything was by hand. She never used any kind of pattern. She designed them herself, and give them a name. She taught me to piece quilts when I was about eight or nine. They called them "string quilts," strips of cloth put together any way. Mama Hannah used to quilt in a group. They all bring their own tops and quilt together. The batting they put in, it was real cotton, and you had to whip it with a stick. They make me help them when I was little. I used to hate that. I had to thread needles, too, so when they whipping in the frame, they running out of thread, you got to have another ready for them. The group would quilt two tops a day sometime.

Me and Mama Hannah was real close. When I was in the sixth grade, I was toting water from down the hill at the spring. I was bringing it up and got snake bit on the ankle, a pilot rattlesnake. My grandmama was with me up on top of the hill. She killed the snake and told me to go on to the house to my daddy. He corded it off, up under my knee to keep the swelling from going above, and he taken me to the doctor up in Alberta, Dr. Dixon. I probably would have panicked but she probably kept me from dying.

She was a big lady, she weighed around 330 pounds. Everybody called her "Big Hannah." Her son, my daddy, he was a big man too, above 300 pounds. When they had those things at the church where everybody bring food, the peoples all want to get their meal from Big Hannah. She was a great cook. Some people had like an item or two they could do. She could do anything. Every kind of food. Cake. Back then you didn't get cake very much. Greens. Chicken. They raised their chickens. Hogs. Pork meat. They raised them too. Eggs, milk, butter, they raised it themselves. She taught me everything. I was with her more than I was with my own mother.

Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair—quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants.

The Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend

This uplifting, Emmy-winning PBS film tells the modern-day "Cinderalla" story of the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Artists born into extreme poverty, they live to see their quilts hailed by a The New York Times art critic as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."