Minder Coleman was one of Gee’s Bend’s leading citizens. She served as president of Gee’s Bend Farms, the agricultural cooperative established in the 1930s by the Farm Security Administration. She was also a member in the same years of the project’s weaving cooperative. Minder would later be as involved with the quilting bee as she had been with the Gee’s Bend cooperatives. When the Bee was incorporated in the spring of 1966, she was named its vice president; she worked there full time until 1978, but she was an accomplished quiltmaker long before the Bee was established.
Aolar Carson Mosely
Born in 1912, Aolar Carson Mosely was one of eight children in the Gee’s Bend family of Elizabeth Pettway Carson and Sim Carson. At a young age, she was taught to quilt by her mother. She became one of the founding members and behind-the-scenes organizers of the Freedom Quilting Bee. She worked both days and evenings, providing instruction, cutting pieces for others to sew, and fixing the machines when necessary. She prided herself on making it possible for others to work as efficiently as possible. “When they get there, they ain’t got nothing to do but go to sewing,” She is the mother of Mary Lee Bendolph, a renowned quilter, also.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”