“I grew up in Young, Alabama. My mama’s parents’ last name was Irby, but they had to change their last name to Pettway when they got to the plantation. My dad was a sharecropper on Herbert Wilkinson’s place. Then dad bought his own land at Gee’s Bend. He grew cotton, corn, peas and potatoes. Dad was also a longshoreman in Mobile and worked on the waterfront. While he was gone, I helped my brothers and sisters in the fields and cooked the meals. When we weren’t in the fields, we walked four miles to and from school. Mama could beautifully handle a needle and thimble and made our clothes. After the shirts, pants and dresses wore out, she used them to make quilts to keep us warm. We didn’t waste anything.
I married, worked in the fields, and raised ten children. In 1965, Dr. King came to Gee’s Bend and said we are somebody. We became active in civil rights. We marched in Montgomery and across the river in Camden. I didn’t do anything that would get me thrown in jail because I had children. We became registered voters and things began to change. We got better jobs. I was one of the founding members of the Freedom Quilting Bee. We started it during the civil rights movement to sell quilts and provide employment to women who lost work when they took a stand for civil rights and registered to vote. I also worked for the extension service for more than 20 years as a quiltmaking instructor.
My mother taught me how to quilt when I was 14. I have made them for more than 60 years. I worked during the day at the school cafeteria, made supper for my family, then stayed up quilting. I was always looking for patterns. I got ideas from books or a quilt a friend made. I found patterns in crossword puzzles, tiles on floors, pictures, toys and Chiclets gum. I liked to make pine burrs in my quilts. A group of us also worked together on our quilts. We sang and prayed as we quilted. Some of the songs were ‘When all God’s Children Get Together’ and ‘What a Time.’ Our young children hid under the table to listen to us talk and watch us quilt.
My grandmother was a quilter. She would be amazed that our quilts became pieces of art. One of my quilts hangs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was a denim quilt made of jeans and shirts that my husband wore in the fields. They were worn and faded from work. I went to New York to see my quilt. I never thought something like that would happen.
I don’t quilt anymore because my eyes aren’t what they used to be. Quilting takes a lot of patience. I hope I taught my kids to finish what they start. Sometimes it takes more than one try, but you have to try again.”
(Mrs. Mingo’s quilt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo from the Met)