They say I was born in Mayfield, a cottage somewhere. I met my grandmother, Dad’s Mamma, I met her about twice in my whole life. I was a little girl and I remember meeting her, and then about when I was 12, an’ my Daddy came back from East Texas, I remember going to see her. I met her that time and that was the last time I saw her. When she died, we were too poor to go to the funeral ‘cause it was about 80 some miles from where we lived. My Daddy hitchhiked and so he couldn’t take the family.
Papa didn’t learn how to read and write. When Papa got grown, he and my Mamma got married. I must have been 5 when we left Texas and went way west and stayed out there until I was 12 or 14, when we come back to East Texas.
Arbie Williams, African-American Quilter and National Heritage Fellow, was 78 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1994.
When I come back to East Texas, all of the children was grown. We were just born and that’s the way kids growed up those days. We were raised way west and come back East Texas about ‘28, ‘29. Then I went on to school. I had not went to school until then. I was 13, 14, something like that.
I had never go to school house, but I’ve always been gifted. I always been one of those gifted women. I’ve been working ever since I was three, come to look at it. When Papa went to Texas I must have been 3 or 4.
When Papa went on a cotton picking crew, he couldn’t pick no cotton so when we got out there it ended up that Mamma had to pick cotton to supply their needs. And Mamma would lay the baby on a blanket and, “Sister, you better not let one of these big ants get on my baby,” and that was my job.
People worked them days. They didn’t sit around and look. She learned us how to read and write and count to 100 and spell different little words, what she knowed. I loved her for that and I love him for being what he was. I never did tire of waiting on him. I could wash, I could cook, I could plow. I did anything the men’s done and they never did say I was tired.
I got married at 17 and then I had my children. He lived only 4 years so that was a breakdown. I moved back home with Mamma and Daddy and stayed a year.
The next year he moved into another little town, and this man said that he was going to woop my children for wasting water. I don’t know how it was but anyway, I was upset and so I said, “I’ll go back and work for the woman I left.”
I told Papa, “You ain’t going to get nothing out of this crop and if you hit my kids don’t know what I’m going to do.” So, I moved the next day.
I moved back to Mayfield and stayed until I got married. I got married the next fall and then the next spring or February we come here on our honeymoon to Oakland, and with him until he got too old and I got too old. He split but I’m still here.
Mamma didn’t have too much trouble out of me ‘cause I worked, saw wood, plow off, rode horses and bulls like my cousins. Girls didn’t have nothing to do, just do the natural things, like I learned to quilt, piece quilts when I was 8.
We were way west. I will never forget it, you could see nothing but just wide open spaces and a great big house, and Mamma was in here piecing quilts. We were little girls and we wanted to do what she was doing. “No, you all can’t do that cause you stick your fingers. No you can’t do this. Don’t bother my needles and thimbles or I’ll kill ya.” That was the word. “When the man go to town I’ll make him bring you needles and thimbles.” I’ve been piecing quilts ever since.
After I piece quilts for so many years, well, until I got about 10 or 11, and this woman made me a dress I didn’t like. So I stayed up all that Saturday night rearranging the dress, so ain’t nobody made me a dress.
And then about 2 years later I was sewing for the whole bunch. My uncles would come by and give us a dime or quarter we would lay it upon the mallow board and that quarter would be there for about maybe a year or 2 years. Thread was a nickel, fabric was 5 and 6 cents. Papa never bought me a pattern in my whole life. When I left home I was sewing for him and a whole bunch.
I had a baby brother, a baby sister, and my sister next to me. Mamma had children every 4 years. She had four of us. I was the oldest. I made Mamma’s dress, Jill’s dress, Anna’s dress, Joel’s little shirt and shorts, and Papa’s shirts and patch all his pants. So I ain’t never been no lazy woman.
I had three children when I got to Oakland. Well, me and this husband had ten children in 11 years. I lost 4 or 5 of them and then I raised 5. I loved to sew and I loved to raise plants. I learned how to cook when I was 8. I had to. Mamma was sick and there weren’t nobody to wait on her. So I’ve been a woman I guess ever since 4 years old. I know how to stay in the house and see about Mamma. Bring in the wood and take care of my sister. She didn’t have to worry wouldn’t be nothing done for the old man when he come in. She just lay there in the bed.
When she got sick, it was when she had her last little girl and that made me 12 years old. I was 12 years older than my sister. I was old enough to take over the house, and believe me I’m taking it over. Mamma said, “You don’t need me anymore.” Like I said, Papa had about 600 to 1000 miles from anybody.
There weren’t no people out there, just the farmhouse and this man and his wife. The next woman of our race, she was a hundred and fifty miles away. She couldn’t leave her family to come, so Papa was trying to get the doctor. Finally the doctor come for my Mamma. I will never forget it, Doctor says, “Well Joe, your wife has some plaguecy.” or something, I was young. “I don’t want her to wash her feet and hands and I don’t want her to get up.” My Mamma was a little woman, beautiful little woman. Papa said, “Yes sir.”
The next morning Papa got up and fix some biscuits. “Man, I don’t want your cooking.” She went that way for about 4 days, without eating anything. Finally I told her the next morning, said, “Mamma,” after Papa went to work, I said, “Now, you been laying here in this bed every day without eating.”
And me thinking, “If she dies, what’s going to happen to us?”
“If I bring all the stuff to the bed, will you put it in the pan and I’ll try to make you a biscuit?”
“O.K. Sister. You so sweet,” she said, and so I get all the stuff to the bed that she told me and she measured it out. I went in the kitchen and she said, “Don’t put too much milk in it.” I made them biscuits. They were terrible looking that day, but the third day, I bet you I made a biscuit.
My Mamma ain’t cook since while I was home. Sure didn’t. I guess I’ve never been a kid. I was always whatever I put my hand to do, I’ve been doing.
And now for the quilting, I made all kinds of quilts ’cause that’s all my mother would do after she found out I could do the housework. She would make Lone Star and all kinds of beautiful quilts.
She would tell me in the winter, “Sister, what you going to do today?”
I’d say, “Well it’s raining outside (or snowing), Mamma.”
“Well, just get you that box of clothes there and get some scraps over there I left for you. You got to get a husband, so go piece some quilts.”
I would piece all kinds of quilts. Some of them would be so little. “Well, just cut a piece of paper and sew them on it, Honey.” I learned how to make quilts real early.
When I come here, well, I didn’t have time to make no quilts. I didn’t have time to do nothing after my babies were growed up and stop having them. I had to work day and night to keep the house.
When I had the car wreck – my daughter wreck her car with me in it – that laid me up for about 3 years. So then I said, “Well, I know how to crochet. I know how to knit.” I knitted two dresses. That was too slow. I went to making crochet hats in the hospital, and bags. I sold them at a reasonable price.
But, you know, I’ve always had a double mind of life. My little grandson must have been 9 and it come on the news on TV that if you go to the other side of Hayward they were offering quite a bit of money for people for art or whatever they could do.
I went down there, me and this little grandson, and I told him what I would need the money for. I said, “You know, I that close to East Monroe,” I say, “and I would love to have enough money to open one of those booths inside there. I go all over. I know about crocheting and knitting and etc. and I would love to open a factory for seniors. When they do something real good we could bring to send it overseas or whatever.”
You know what the man told me? “Mrs. Williams, do you know what you’re asking for?”
I said, “I know what I’m asking for.”
He said, “You really mean it?”
I said, “I think I do.”
He looked at me he said one thing. “Say if I get you this money, and the way you talk it’s going to be a success. Would you be a traveling salesman for me?”
I says, “Yeah, I think I would.”
But I went home that night and had another attack. I say, “Oh God, I ain’t going to call the man,” and so I never did call him back to get the money. I would have, but I didn’t have nobody that I could trust with the money. You got to be responsible, so I just said, “I won’t do with that deal,” and so I just let it go.
But, my brother-in-law said, “Go down today, go down to city hall and get a little job, like go talk to old people for about 2 hours a day. You make about $8.00 a day. You don’t hurt your social security,” he said, “but it will gets you out of the house.”
I went to do that, and I met this woman, Gussy Wells, and she was in the bed waiting for her Mamma to die. She was in the bed dying herself. Didn’t know it. Bless her heart I miss her. She died last year. I started with her, and about 4 weeks after I was there, she was still in the bed moaning and groaning.
I said, “Ms. Wells, let’s get up and do something.”
She said, “No. I be here if my Mamma calls me. I be here.”
I said, “Well that’s true,” I said, “Let’s crochet. Let’s do some quilts.”
She said, “I use to do that. I don’t want to do that no more.”
She was a wealthy woman. I finally got her out of the bed and we got to making quilts and this writer, he bought quilts from her and from all her bed people. She sold them some quilts and then she wanted him to meet me.
So I went one day with a basket full of quilt scraps and I said, “Come on Wells, let’s sew and let us make some quilts.”
“No, I don’t want to make no quilts.”
I said, “Here, take some of these scraps.”
So, the next morning she called me before I left home. It was my day to go see her. She says, “Williams.”
I says, “Yeah, what’s ya doing, Wells?”
“I’m still in bed but bring your machine with ya.”
“What ‘s you going to do?”
“I’m going to show you something.”
So we were to making quilt pieces by the machine. I said, “Oh, this too slow.”
She says, “No, this the way we do it,” and so we went all over making quilts with the sewing machine.
Then my buddy left. She went to Louisiana and her granddaughter had to go get her. She never was right no more. She said she just had one child and her daughter and her fussed all the time.
I told Ms. Wells, “Maybe your daughter sick.”
“No, she just sit over there an do nothing. She too lazy to get out of that house.”
I say, “You never know, Wells,” and I put my arms around her and I say, “Come on, let’s go eat,” and so we go all over Oakland eating.
Ely brought me in a pair of corduroy blue pants, little pants, and that pair of pants worried me so, ’cause I done made all kind of pants quilts for the boys. I done cut them all up and everything. I just want to do this pants. Lord, I ain’t never seen that pair like it. That’s what I done. They say that’s the first pair they ever seen put together like it. You can cut the
squares and do it. But if you pull your pants off and I just take it off from the back and spread it open. Bigger is better, it is, because you got a whole quilt together there without cutting it down. Main thing is trying to get those strips to go it up. Oh man.
And when this woman called me long distance, she said, “Is you Arbie Williams?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Well, Mrs. Williams, we want to send you, Oh, I’m looking at your beautiful quilt, and we’ll pay you a round trip ticket¼” blah, blah.
I say, “You listen to me. You called the wrong woman. I’m fixing to go now.”
“Oh, no. Don’t go now. You at 2546 14th Avenue?”
I says, “Yes, ma’am, but you must have the wrong woman.”
She says, “No. It’s you.”
And then I’m curious too, and so I say, “Who did you get my name from?”
She said, “Leon, Ely Leon. Do you know him?”
I says, “Yes.”
She says, “Well, he’s a writer and sent all these beautiful snapshots of you here saying you was chosen.”
So I come, and sure enough it was my quilt. That’s what’s making me in Washington now is that quilt.
But you know, I was just always a working woman, and I don’t know what’s making it so hard for some people, but I enjoy being honored at this age.
When she called me this time, my son says, “Mamma, Washington trying to get you.” Oh my God, again? Now what I done do? So, here I am again, Lord, and they say I go to the White House tomorrow. I don’t know what I ‘m going to see, the President, or not.
My mother was in Las Vegas and she come to see me and she died the year before last, in 1991. She come to Las Vegas and I went home and got from Texas. She didn’t want to stay with me. Then she wrote me. She come out the west coast in the 80’s, and so she want to come to my house. I went and got her. Then she got a fizzy and went back home. Mamma, well she got mad ’cause I put a gate on the stairs so she wouldn’t fall. Boy, was she mad.
I said, “Mamma, it’s what for your protection, ’cause if you fall, you never get over with it at your age.” Mamma went back to Vegas. I carried her back, and bless her heart, Mamma wasn’t down there three months when she fell on that cement floor and broke her hip. Well, my sister called and said, “Mamma done fall and broke her hip.”
I went. Then we got up over that and she was just drifted away. The year she died, God made it possible for me to go 6 times into Las Vegas and back, and the 7th time when I went, she died. I didn’t have no money.
Well, Mamma was a real Christian. She loved the Bible. My Daddy was no devil, but he just couldn’t read the Bible. He knowed God, but he couldn’t read thus and thou. He had a good sense of humor. I never knowed him to mistreat any of us. He was a hard worker and I just come up with a strong belief.
When I was having my children, that’s what made me so close to God. ‘Cause I come here in ’45 when the war was going on and my husband was so big they wouldn’t take him on account he couldn’t jump some rope or something they wanted him to jump. They didn’t take him so he went to work for the Navy.
There we were, having babies, and Mamma couldn’t come ’cause Papa was sick. My baby sister, she couldn’t come because she was having babies. So, then I went to reading the Bible every night. One portion of the Bible said I’d be a mother for a year and a father and a brother and sister. You know, that stuck to me. It still sticks to me and you know how crazy I am at this age?
I have one son who is a preacher. I have one grandson who is a preacher. I have one grandson is a licensed flyer. When he got his first permit to fly, which was just these little, I call them crop dusters, he called me up, “Grandma, this is Aaron.”
I say, “Oh Honey, how are you? When you coming up?”
He told me he was going to fly a plane. I love to ask the kids what theys going to be, you know. He says, “I’ll come get you.”
I said, “No, let come down there. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
He said, “Grandma, we going to get up early in the morning.”
I said, “What we going to get up so early for, Baby?”
He sitting over here holding my hand. He said, “We going to see Great-Grandma.” Oh, he loved my Mamma. And Mamma was sick then, but she wasn’t so sick.
I said, “O.k.” I didn’t let him hear no fear.
That night I prayed so hard, and I said, “Lord, give me the courage. Don’t let him know I’m scared of flying.”
And, you know, he carried me to Vegas and back. He sure did. He’s a lucky person. His school was selling raffle tickets or something and he had won so much money, that’s what he spent some of his money doing. Renting an airplane carrying me to Vegas and back.
And so going over to Vegas he asked me, “Grandma, you scared?”
I said, “No, Baby. Grandma ain’t scared. Why?”
Well, his mother’s mother, when she got up, she said, “Take me back to the barn, Boy. You don’t know nothing about flying. Just put me back on the ground.”
I wanted to tell him the same thing, but it was going good. I said, “Well Aaron, you know, God made man. When he made Adam, Adam must have been a beautiful man. He’s the king of the Earth and which man isn’t king of the Earth? I see a little flea and a fly and worm and He had created all that and then he made Adam. He gave him domain over all the Earth, everything there is in the Earth, mans owns it. As high as he can go and low as he can go, as big around as man can go, He’s there with you. If you just know him.”
And you know, that little boy went on to Vegas, and me there worrying. We were listening to music and it was storming and so he said, “Grandma, don’t say nothing. I got to call this on long distance in the air. He called it in and it was so cute.
He called, “This is Eager Beaver, and I’m traveling to Vegas. How’s the weather going to be? What time I’ll get there? What’s the best landing when I get there?”
Oh, he finished college, you know. The man told him the weather was going to be fine, and he told him where to land, but I didn’t get it.
We pass this flying place I saw all those little planes looking down 9,600 some feet. I turned my face but I didn’t let him see me. Well, Lord, you taking care more people than I have. I just rolled right on and so I didn’t let Aaron know I was scared. He went across the land and I thought he should have landed.
I just say, “Aaron?”
He say, “What Grandma?”
I say, “Well it’s getting dark on us. Change of light.”
He says, “Yup, Grandma. We’ll be there in just a minute.”
And then the little plane is making a noise. Oh Lord, I guess he’s going to drop on some of these houses. I looked around.
He says, “Grandma, look over there to my right. Ain’t they got some of the prettiest big knees and legs I’ve seen yet?”
I looked around. She was sitting on the bench out there.
We get up the next morning six o’clock, caught that plane, brought it on back in to San Diego. I ain’t seen my baby since.
He talks to me once in awhile. He’s in the Marine now, he’s finished college and he’s finished high school.
He called me. I says, “You’re a man and you know what I told you.”
He says, “I ain’t never going to forget that. I got the Bible you sent me and it stays in my pocket.”
I sent him a little Bible and it fits in his pocket with all the chapters. I give $67.00 for that little Bible.
I says, “Now you read it when time of trouble.”
He said, “I got my license, Grandma, but I want to be one of the best.”
I says, “Keep going to school. You ain’t but 19 or 20.”
He says, “I going to make a Marine or wherever they have planes.” So that’s what my baby going to be.
I love my God. That’s the end of it.
I have had two husbands, and me and this husband ended up because I told him, “Johnny, a husband and wife, you suppose to see eye to eye. Don’t you have to make like you seeing eye to eye sometime to work, to be nice, you know?”
So, he didn’t want to do it like that. He kept going weaker and weaker so I just got a divorce. I says, “Well now, I’m going to get my divorce if you don’t cut it loose.”
“Honey, you can’t get no divorce from me.”
But I did, so now he don’t know why I quit him. I says, “You know, a husband and wife supposedly stay together until they die, but you making it impossible for me, and me working both day and night and I come home and you go, and the kids, and everybody in the house, and I don’t know what I’m trying to do.”
“Oh well, you can get your divorce and then you can serve your God.” So that’s what I done.
He ‘s in Providence Hospital now. He needs us. He needs me now. I pray for him. I went to see him. He never did hit me and we raised children.
He was, “I think I’m losing my mind.”
I say, “Well man, look how old you are. Heck I’m losing my mind too. You done forgot how to pray?” He could pray a good pray.
He says, “Honey, you know, I guess that’s the truth.” But I guess he do worry ’cause I didn’t quit him for nobody just ’cause a little understanding is what I needed. So, if God want to punish me for that, well, I guess I have to be punished. ‘Cause I figure he helped get the children he should have been able to help raise them. So here I am.
They asked me, “Mom, you going? Is you still going to Washington D.C.?” My daughter come twice with me and this time she’s working over there in New Jersey.
I say, “Yes.”
“Now you know, I don’t want you to go down there all by yourself.”
I say, “Well, Honey, whatever God see fit to do, just trust Him.”
But God been so good to me. I told my old man, I said, “Look, whatever God see fit to do for you when you get old, be good to those people. If He let you live long enough to draw your social security, that money was made to take care of you. I have 5 boys living and 3 girls and if I fall critical, put me in rest home ’cause it wouldn’t be right for one daughter to do all the work. It wouldn’t be right for one boy to do all the work.”
So I’m ready. I’m just a happy old woman. I got 37 grandkids and 30 something great-grandkids and I don’t know, 4 or 5 great-great-grandkids. I just keep on living. God will be good to you. I asked God when I was having my children, I said, “Just let me see them grown.”
My granddaughter is going to be the one. She’s a beautiful talented young gal. Her name is Ophelia. That’s Juanita’s daughter. I taught her how to crochet. Whenever you think about it, everybody got a mind for herself. I taught my grandbaby how to crochet when she was 7 or 8 and then I learned her how to do stitch work, how to piece quilts and then I learned her how to cook. Everything I can cook, she can better than I can now. She made me the most precious crochet spread when she was 8 years old.
And now the way she set her needle, I can’t crochet like that girl. People give her like 6 or 7 hundred dollars for her spreads. She might get off her job in the city and drive home, and she may not go to sleep until 2 o’clock if she is trying to finish something. I don’t know what she going to be.
She said, “Grandma, I sure want to take that pants quilt. I have an idea how you do it.” I said, “Well, I want you to take my tradition.”
She say, “I sure want to be there when you get some of your rewards so I can see exactly how you do it.”
So, that’s about the history of my life. I was born in 1916, 12th day of August. If I live to see another year, I’ll be a happier woman. Ain’t nothing I’ve done I regretted. I’ve helped many a person. I’ve had many a child and you know, anything you ask for you gets.