1897 - 1987

Willie "Ma Willie" Abrams

Alberta, Alabama

Estelle Witherspoon managed the Freedom Quilting Bee from 1967 until the early 1990s. Her mother, "Ma Willie" Abrams, was instrumental in keeping the bee afloat in its formative years, and was known for sharing pattern blocks and designs with curious quilters, such as neighborhood girl Flora Moore. Estelle's daughter, Louise Williams, recalls Ma Willie.

One of the things I remember most fondly about my grandmother is that she loved children. She loved all people, but children, especially infants, seemed to hold a special place in her heart. I remember when we had visitors that had a baby, she would just light up. Ma Willie was a very quiet person, and at times you would not even know she was in the room, but when we had babies in the house, that would change. She would hold them and sing to them a little ditty she would just make up on the spot, and they would just coo and laugh and listen to her sing, all the while gazing steadfastly into her eyes. I believe the song she sang was catered to the baby she was singing to. I think something about the baby dictated the song she would make up and sing. Most of her songs would include the words "Mama's little precious thing" and would then go on to talk about the child—color of their eyes, hair, facial expressions, etc. After she sang the song, she could never repeat it, because, as I said, she made it up on the spot—another aspect of her creativity. I have many pictures of her holding babies and singing to them, and the expressions on everyone's faces are priceless. The parents would enjoy it as much as the babies, and I think they all got a kick out of hearing her songs. Before leaving they would always ask her to sing the baby another song. Although my mom only had one child, she loved all children and had a hand in rearing many. I believe that her love of children was passed on to her from my grandmother. Mama was always trying to nurture, guide, and help children, and I believe that came from the love she saw her mother give to children. I remember bringing my infant daughters home for their first visit, and Ma Willie just had the time of her life singing to those babies. After all, she had two babies to sing to at once, and she would place one on each knee and sing them 'their' song. They seemed to have an instant connection or bond, and they loved to have her sing to them. Once she would lay them down, their little heads would just turn, looking for her.

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. Even though my mom was a bit more vocal than my grandmother, they exhibited many similarities, one of which was they both knew how to get their point over without really raising their voice. And sometimes it would sound louder than it would with someone who was actually raising his or her voice. I also believe the quietness of both my mother and grandmother was strongly rooted in their religion. "The meek shall inherit the earth."

A new consideration of extraordinary art created by self-taught Black artists during the mid-20th century​. My Soul Has Grown Deep considers the art-historical significance of self-taught Black artists, many working under conditions of poverty and isolation, in the American South. It features paintings and drawings, mixed-media and sculptural works, and quilts, including pieces ranging from the pioneering paintings of Thornton Dial (1928–2016) to the renowned quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

While the artists featured in this groundbreaking catalog were born in the Jim Crow period of institutionalized racism, their works embody the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Originally created as expressions of individual identity and communal solidarity, these eloquent objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. This gorgeous book features lush illustrations of works by artists such as Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and the Gee's Bend quilters--including Gearldine Westbrook, Jessie T. Pettway, and more--and presents a series of insightful essays.

This book and exhibition are part of a growing family of research projects about the African American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and its quilts. Surrounded on three sides by a river, Gee’s Bend developed a distinctive local culture and quilt design aesthetic. In 2002 the inaugural exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend documented these quiltmaking achievements. Expanding upon that initial exhibition and its accompanying publications, Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt offers a deeper look into the women and their art, and a more focused investigation into the nature and inspirations—and future—of the Gee’s Bend quilt tradition.

The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, black community in Alabama—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend tells the story of this town and its art.

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.

de Young Museum
June 3, 2017 to April 1, 2018

"Revelations: Art from the African American South" celebrates the debut of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta of 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
June 4 – September 4, 2006

"Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt" features seventy spectacular quilts made by four generations of women in Gee's Bend, a small, isolated African American community in southwest Alabama. With bold improvisation of traditional quilt motifs, these women have created a style all their own. Made between the 1930s and the present, the Gee's Bend quilts’ bright patterns, inventive color combinations, lively irregularities and unexpected compositional variations make them outstanding examples of modern art.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
September 6 – November 10, 2002

"The Quilts of Gee’s Bend" celebrates the artistic legacy of four generations of African-American women from a small, historically all-black community in rural southern Alabama. This exhibition of over sixty extraordinary quilts that were made between 1930 and 2000 showcases a body of work that is bold, spirited, moving, and hailed by Michael Kimmelman, in The New York Times, as “some of the most miraculous works of art America has produced.”

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."