Willie "Ma Willie" Abrams
The mother of longtime Freedom Quilting Bee president and manager Estelle Witherspoon, Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams, was instrumental in keeping the Bee afloat in its early years. She did much of her work for the Bee on her open porch, making sunbonnets, earning $2 for each, and crafting as many as three per day. At age seventy-two, she was quoted in Good Housekeeping as saying 1969 was the first year she did not have to work in the fields where she had picked 100 pounds of cotton a day for $2.
As a young girl, Estelle Witherspoon assisted her mother’s quiltmaking just as Ma Willie had helped her grandmother:
When I was a little girl, I would hold a little tin lamp for my mother to see how to quilt. We didn’t have electricity. Just a little lamp. We had bigger lamps, but you could hold this little tin lamp over the quilt and let your mother see how to thread your needle, or you’d thread it. And Mama would hold the needle over the lamp. It was very exciting!
Witherspoon’s daughter Louise Williams, who now serves as president of the Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy, recalls her grandmother.
Even though Ma Willie was a very quiet person, there was strength in her quietness. I remember events from my childhood that sometimes made me want to change her demeanor, bring her up to the twentieth century, as I called it, but I had to realize that she was born in 1897 in a small country town in Alabama, where, even though slavery had officially been over for many years, many were still living in the aftermath of it. I believe she was quiet, not because she didn’t have anything to say, but because she came from a world where you did not speak until you were spoken to. I think this is also how she was able to create many beautiful quilts, aprons, hats, and so forth because in her moments of quietness, she would think of things to do and visualize it and just make it.
Willie Abrams’s quilts are in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.