Founding Mothers

1897-1987

“Ma Willie” Abrams

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.

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1916-1998

Estelle Witherspoon

Estelle Witherspoon is the daughter of Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams. One of the Freedom Quilting Bee’s founding members and its long time comanager, Witherspoon was active in the Civil Rights Movement, participating in the march from Selma to Montogomery in 1965, and getting arrested in 1971 during an un-permitted march for school desegregation.

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1949-2017

Mary Spencer

I was Mary Abrams, born in Rehoboth. This is where I was born in 1949. My mother’s name was Daisy Pettway and my father’s name was Otis Abrams. The Abrams store was started by my brother Johnny and my brother Otis Abrams Jr. My parents were farmers, farmed cotton, corn, peas, okra, watermelon, cucumbers. As soon as I got big enough to do something in the field, I started in the field, and went on until I was about sixteen. Then I left home, and was glad to leave to get out of the field.

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1916-2010

Nettie Young

I was raised up in a place they called Young’s, the old Young plantation. My daddy’s father had been a slave named Irby but was sold to the Pettways, so my daddy was named Pettway, same as all the others owned by the Pettways. Daddy had lived down in the Bend. When he got grown he was free from the Pettway ownership and could go where he wanted to go, and he went up to the Young plantation to work.

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More Artists

1948-

Florine Smith

Florine Smith is one of the few Gee’s Bend quilt makers who work with paper sketches at the beginning of a quilting project, but she moves away from the planned design toward expressive improvisation once she begins handling her materials. Her patterns are frequently dictated in part by the physical limitations of her fabrics—since corduroy is prone to raveling and fraying, her quilts typically are made with large, simple rectangular pieces.

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1939-

Mensie Lee Pettway

Unlike most quiltmakers in Rehoboth, Mensie Lee Pettway had a number of family members who influenced her formative years, including her paternal grandmother, Hannah Wilcox (1896-1973), and her mother, America Irby (1916-1993).

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1935-

Mary Lee Bendolph

Families down here, they like to do together. See, we farm together, and the ladies in the family get together for quilting. In them days, they farm three months, then when the lay-by time come—’round the last of May, June—they go to piecing quilts. August, go back to the field. October and November, up into December—and then after Christmas and New Year over with—back to piecing and quilting. Piece by yourself; quilt together.

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1936-1981

Sadie Bell Nelson

Gee’s Bend, Alabama

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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.”

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