She was born June 18, 1904. Her parents were Austin H. and Leetha Pettway. She had seven brothers and two sisters. She was married to Ed O.—they said Pettway, but he was a Williams. They changed his name to Pettway because he was living on the Pettway place, and they had to change their name as long as they stay on the place. So, when they took up the census, that’s what he kept his name: Pettway. His father was Ottoway Williams. He had changed his name to Pettway, too. My parents had five boys and four girls. My mama was a housewife and a field worker. She was picking cotton, hoeing, pulling corn, something like that. Pulling up peanuts and planting peanuts. Everything you can say on the farm, she did, but she didn’t plow. Some of the women plowed, but not my mama. We didn’t have no mules or nothing. The only man who had mules was the man who owned the place we living on. So, we got a bull and quit using the mule. That mule will plow along, and take a break and lay down under a tree, and you can’t get him up until he’s ready. He get hot, and he going to move, move to the shade.
We was walking about two miles and a half to the fields, and coming back about twelve o’clock to see about the baby, and two miles and a half back to the fields. Work until it’s time to cook supper.
Mama go to the fields with a pot and put on peas that morning, and every time she’d make a round she’d push the fire up under that pot, and that evening we’d have supper already done. When we knock off that evening, we bring the pot in the house, and nothing to do but fix the food. Didn’t have no good peas unless you do it that way.
My mama pieced quilts. She had to. She was piecing them in the house. My mama taught my sisters how to quilt. All my sisters know just how to make a quilt. And my sisters’ daughters know what to do with a quilt.
We started our day early because my mother had to make breakfast and lunch so we could carry our lunch with us to the fields. When I got a little older, about eight years old, I also helped with getting the meals prepared, and now I was old enough to chop and pick cotton. This was not an easy job, and I can remember we hardly ever complained. And even if we did, we were only wasting time and energy. In my early teens, cotton started to fade away, and only a few people who were a little more well-off than the rest continued with planting cotton. So we “hired out,” working for those who had a bigger farm. To pick a hundred pounds of cotton a day was really hard for me because I was so small, but I am sure it was no problem for my grandfather, Tank Pettway, because he was a big, tall man. It was not long before cotton completely faded away from Gee’s Bend and another crop of hard work was born—the birth of cucumbers.
Roman Pettway, the community entrepreneur, introduced Gee’s Bend to a new mode of farming. Cucumbers were the “new cotton,” but thank God, the season for cucumber picking was very short, from late May to the first week in July. We knew when the month of July came it would not be long before we could finally have a summer break. Growing cucumbers lasted for nearly a decade, and many families planted a second crop because this was a quicker and faster way to earn income. My family and others planted their own gardens and grew almost all the vegetables needed to survive the winter months. I learned to can vegetables and to make plum and blackberry jelly and jams.
My mother Qunnie Pettway’s first paying job was working at the Freedom Quilting Bee. Her paycheck was not a whole lot, and sometimes she would have to work several weeks before getting any pay. During her absence, my oldest brother and I had to do most of the household chores. We didn’t have a water pump of our own, so we carried water from my aunt Lucy T. Pettway’s house. We also carried water from a natural spring, a spring called Cross Spring. Some of the men in the community tailored the spring into a well by damming it up with barrels; this made it much easier to obtain the water. The water was used to cook and wash our clothes. We also heated our bathwater in the same wash pot we used to wash our clothes. By the time I turned about fifteen, we got running water and paved roads. Now that the roads were paved and we had running water, washing, cleaning, riding the school bus, and walking got a lot better.
I can recall that I was about five or six years old when I was first introduced to sewing. At that age we were only allowed to thread the needles for the quilters in my grandmother’s and my mother’s quilting group. The leftover scraps are what we got to sew and piece together, practicing on how to make a real quilt. We never actually made a quilt, because the leftover pieces were so small in size, so I looked for something else more interesting to do than sticking my fingers with a needle. During grade school the bulk of my school clothes were homemade by my mother, Qunnie Pettway; she has always had a passion for sewing. Since quilting and making quilts were such a big part of my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and my aunt’s life, I believe the seed of quiltmaking was planted into my genes. Whenever we would go to either aunt Lucy T. Pettway’s or aunt Ruth Mosely’s houses to play during the summer months, they would always say, “Come here, sit down and learn how to sew.”