FREEDOM QUILTING BEE
Estelle Witherspoon Obituary
Estelle Witherspoon, a founder and manager of the freedom Quilting Bee in Alberta, Alabama, died on Christmas eve. A funeral service was held in Alberta on January 2.
The Freedom Quilting Bee, formed in 1966 by local women as an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement, became nationally known for its colorful quilts based on traditional patterns. In the mid sixties, African-Americans in the area had been farming on rented land, also lost their homes. To supplement income, women began to sell their quilts, with the encouragement and assistance of a network of supporters from around the country. In the early
days, Reverend Franicx X. Walter, an Episcopal priest, was the most active of these.
As their cause gained support and their work gained admiration, Freedom Quilting Bee quilts were sold in places like BloomindaleÕs, Saks, Bonwits and lord & TaylorÕs. They were exhibited at the Smithsonian InstituteÕs Folk Life Festivals The group had contracts from Sears. Their quilts were featured in articles in Vogue, House and Garden, and the New York Times.
The group, with six to ten empolyees, own building and continues to be an
outstanding example of community-based economic development, operating in
one of the [poorest counties in the country. Family members of original FQB
members continue to work there. In addition to quilts of various sizes, the
group now makes placemat and napkin sets, potholders, aporans, childrenÕs
blocks and conference bags. The current manager of the Freedom Quilting Bee
is Rennie Miller, whose mother, Nettie Young, also a founder of the group,
chairs its board.
Ms. Witherspoon was a founding member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a regional technical assistance and advocacy organization in the South, which continues to provide support to the FQB. In the seventies and eighties, the Bee became affiliated with the Arttisans Cooperatives, based in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvanis, which brought it into a network for the training, product design, and new outlets in the Northeast. More recently, the group has joined with the other rural womenÕs producer groups in the Rural WomenÕs Product Development & Marketing Venture, a project of the Rural Development Leadership Network based in New York City, Through this project, women from these other groups, Artes del Valle (CO), Mujeres Unidas (NM), and Native WomenÕ[s Cooperatives (OK) visited the freedom Quilting Bee in early October.
Ms. Witherspoon, who like early FQB members spent time in jail for Civil Rights activities, was the guiding light for the Freedom Quilting Bee, traveling and speaking widely to promote the groupÕs cause and its products, until her retirement in the early nineteen nineties.
Ms. Witherspoon was born into the Abrams family on January 20,1916 in Alberta
and was one of the six children. She was married to Eugene Witherspoon on
February 26,1936. Together they farmed for many years. Mr. Witherspoon died
Ms. Witherspoon completed the highest schooling offered in the area at the time, the ninth grade at the nearby Pine Grove School, and in fact she attended the school for three more years in the same grade because she wanted to keep learning.
An active member of the Pine Grove Baptist Church, Ms. Witherspoon was ordained ŌMother of the ChurchĶ and she was well known as a singer there and at other churches. She served as constable in Wilcox Country, as a poll worker, a secretary of the Sisters and Brothers of Charity Society, a member of the humans rights committee for Partlow State School and human Hospital for the mentally retarded, and a board member of the Artisans cooperative, acting chairman from 1981-83.
The story of the group is recorded in a book called The Freedom Quilting Bee by Nancy Callahan, Published by the University of Alabama Press in 1987.
Ms, Witherspoon is survived by her daughter Louise Williams of Fayetteville, North Carolina, with whom she lived during the last year or so of her life.