Mary Elizabeth Kennedy
Daughter of Reverend Spurlin Pettway, one of Gee's Bend's leaders during the early twentieth century, Mary Elizabeth Kennedy married Houston Kennedy. (Houston, with his plow and mule, was immortalized in one of the most emblematic photographs of 1930s rural America.) Their niece Tinnie Dell Pettway recalls the family.
Mary Elizabeth's parents was married a long time before having nary'n children. After about fifteen years, Mary Elizabeth was born, and she was like the special one always. She was the one who got everything. Grandmama ran things. Granddaddy Spurlin Pettway was kind of a quiet man, like to stay to himself in the woods hunting and fishing. Left things up to Grandmama. They all farmed, a little peas and sweet potatoes. Their main crop was cotton. They had a little hogs on the side, for food, nothing to take to the market, and depended largely on their garden to provide food, and whatever they could hunt and kill and fish. It was survival for them. They were very poor people. Practically everybody down here was poor, and they shared with their neighbors. If you went to your kitchen and your meal was gone, you was sent to your neighbors for meal. Same for salt, pepper, flour, sugar, anything else.
A lot of people did make what you call sorghum from millet. You shared that if you had it. If you need milk for biscuits, and your milk cow wasn't giving milk, or you didn't have a cow, somebody always give you milk.
Mary Elizabeth didn't have to do much of the fieldwork. In those days they had one-room school shacks with a potbellied stove, only two or three months a year of schooling. They paid the teacher with whatever they grew—sweet potatoes, peanuts—and it was satisfactory for the teachers. You took whatever you had to school for food. You take a baked sweet potato in your pocket or a pocketful of peanuts, or, if you was lucky enough, a biscuit with some syrup between it.
She married Houston Kennedy, and children started flying in. She had two before him, and twelve in all. But the women didn't get to plan the children. The man was in charge—no planned parenthood. I can tell you that if the woman was in charge you wouldn't find no family with twenty or thirty children. If a man's wife didn't have children at least every two years, he was the joke of the community. He wasn't no good. It was a macho time. They'd have taken a sperm count, but back then they didn't know nothing about sperm. They say when sometime there was a question about who the real father was, the response was, "If the child don't look like you, if you feed him long enough he'll be starting looking like you."
Mary Elizabeth got killed when her car crashed coming back from Selma or Camden. She was an old lady then. Before she died, her daughter came down and said she just knew someone was going to die because she could smell the death in there, all over that house. She said the death angel was just flying through the house. I have never experienced that. The only thing I know about is people putting the devil lye under the steps to ward off evil spirits. When we moved the church up there, they found several cans of devil lye under the steps. (I know a few people now that need to put devil lye under their steps.) We had an aunt that believed in witchcraft. She lived with us. She would put barbed wire under the bed, and she would put a round sifter under the bed because she said that if the witch came, he would have to count every hole in the sifter before he come in. She would get these rattan vines—they make these little berries—and she would stick all that stuff under her bed. And salt and pepper, because they said the witches get out of their skin. And if they put the salt and pepper under there, and it get on the raw body, they had to beg to get back in. That sounds so silly. People accused my grandmother Patsy of being a witch.
Mary Elizabeth Kennedy's work is in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rockford Art Museum, and the Toledo Museum of Art.