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Four Elements

Martha Jane Pettway

by Synatra Smith, Ph.D. on 2021-10-21T00:00:00-04:00 in Black Artists | 0 Comments

Martha Jane Pettway was one of the members of the extensive historic quilting community in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, along with Loretta Pettway, Mary Lee Bendolph, Louisiana Pettway Bendolph, and Delia Bennett. A distant relative of the Bendolph family, she was born May 25, 1898. She learned to quilt around the age of fifteen, which is relatively late in comparison to other quilters in the community who learned during their childhood. Martha Jane Pettway taught her eight daughters[1] how to quilt and is known for incorporating the Half-Log Cabin pattern and vertical strips in her quilts. Maude Wahlman has remarked on her compositions: “Within the vertical design structure she uses color and placement to express a very lyrical personal aesthetic. Martha Jane’s quilts have a graceful, ethereal quality.”[2] Her son Nathan, husband of quilter Louella Pettway, recounts: “My mama and them didn’t have nothing good to make them quilts out of, but they made quilts for us children. They get old odd stuff, whatever they could find, and make a quilt out of it. It would last a year sometimes, and then us tear it up before the year out.”[3]

Martha Jane Pettway and her husband Little Pettway were unofficial leaders in Gee’s Bend. They encouraged other families to take advantage of New Deal social welfare programs. She died in 2003, but her extended family continues to own over one hundred acres of land from a Rural Resettlement project that redistributed farmland to Black residents, and they lease this land to other farmers. 


PMA Collection



[1] Pettway gave birth to ten daughters but two died during infancy (Wahlman 1993).

[2] Wahlman 1993, 11–12.

[3] Quoted in Beardsley 2002, 230.



Beardsley, John. 2002. “Pettway.” In Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts. Edited by John Beardsley, William Arnett, and Paul Arnett. Atlanta: Tinwood Books.


Wahlman, Maude. 1993. Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts. New York: Studio Books in association with the Museum of American Folk Art.


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