ann_peltway.jpgBRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) _ They came from Alabama and were nationally acclaimed for their quilts inspired by their slave ancestry. Now, the Pettways are making headlines of a different sort after Ann Pettway admitted last month to snatching a baby and raising the girl as her own.

The Pettways have deep roots in the city of Bridgeport, a place one family member once called Sweetport. While some members are known for their public service, other family members are known for getting on the wrong side of the law.

So, who exactly are the Pettways?

The history of the Pettways who came to Bridgeport begins in the small, rural town of Gee's Bend, or Boykin, Ala. Family members learned to quilt there during their years working as slaves on the large cotton plantation owned by Joseph Gee and Mark Pettway. Their story, representative of the migration north of once-Southern slaves, is told in the encyclopedia of Alabama as well as in a photo exhibit by an anthropologist that is available at the Bridgeport Public Library.

“After the Civil War, freed people took the name Pettway, became tenant farmers for the Pettway family, and founded a community that remained completely isolated until the 1930s,'' according to “The women of Gee's Bend developed a distinctive, sophisticated quilting style that they have passed on for at least six generations to the present day.''

In the late 1940s, when the cotton industry struggled, A.C. “Ace'' Pettway traveled north to New York looking for work and found his way to Bridgeport.

Pettway, who at the time had just been discharged from the Army Air Corps, found a job as a crane operator and quickly told his brothers about the “good economic times and relative freedom in Sweetport,'' according to the photo exhibit by Mike Trend created in 1992 called “From Fields of Promise: Gee's Bend, Alabama to Bridgeport, Connecticut.''

The exhibit, which later inspired a book and a documentary film called “Gee's Bend'' by Tinwood Media, a company founded by Jane Fonda and William Arnett, tells the story of the Pettways' migration north.

“The original settlement was confined to the Stratford Avenue area of Bridgeport,'' was written on one exhibit panel.

The panel also noted that although the Pettways have moved on to Milford, Stratford and other neighborhoods in Bridgeport _ at least 54 properties throughout the city are owned by a Pettway _ Stratford Avenue still contains an “Alabama block.''

City Historian Mary Witkowski, who was the driving force behind a visit in 2002 from a group of women quilters from Gee's Bend to the North Branch Library, said the “fabrics that came from down South in Gee's Bend are part of the fabric of the city.''

But the family's image in the city changed in the 1980s as some members of the next generation of Pettways were arrested on drug- and weapons-related charges.

A variety store owned by Kapel Pettway Sr., who in 1990 unsuccessfully ran on the Republican ticket against Democrat Ernest Newton for a seat in the state General Assembly, became known as “The Bloody Fifth'' in the 1980s because of the number of shootings and drug-related murders that occurred on the corner of Stratford Avenue and Fifth Street.

In the last 10 years alone, there have been at least six shootings in front of the variety store, including the shooting death last year of Kapel's son Leon Pettway. Kapel Pettway Sr. has also been charged numerous times with selling liquor without a permit at the store.

A former supervisor of the Bridgeport division of the FBI's Drug Enforcement Task Force, who asked not to be named, said he couldn't remember a drug case he did without a Pettway involved.

Dating back to 2001, Bridgeport Superior Court records list 149 convictions or probation terminations against 59 different Pettways. Another 25 cases are pending.

Then last month, news of Ann Pettway's secret was discovered when she confessed to Bridgeport police and the FBI that she had abducted a baby from Harlem Hospital in 1987 and raised her as her own, giving her the name Nejdra Nance. Her surrender came after a nationwide search when she fled her North Carolina home after Nance, who had become suspicious about her identity, discovered she was really Carlina White and was reunited with her birth parents in New York City.

White's discovery of her true identity captured the nation's attention. Pettway, on probation in North Carolina for her conviction in an attempted embezzlement case, was discovered in Bridgeport after she appeared at a Boston Avenue pawn shop trying to sell jewelry. Family members reached out to Bridgeport Police Lt. David Daniels through his Facebook page. He then helped arrange her surrender, saying the family trusted him.

Loving people

Pettway family members say they are concerned about all the negative publicity that has ensued.

Jasmine Pettway, 24, who said she thought she was White's distant cousin, said she was worried how the coverage would affect her own reputation in the city.

“I was very shocked,'' she said, declining to speak about her relationship with White. “I work three jobs and everybody knows my name. I was scared of the association. If you didn't know about the Pettway family, you know now.''

The Rev. Glenn Pettway, who said he was associated with a church in Stratford, said the family is upset that the national coverage of the Ann Pettway case has “tarnished'' the entire family's reputation. He felt it was unfair that the news media highlighted some family members' criminal history in their reporting of the case.

Jasmine, a Harding High School and Southern Connecticut State University graduate, said she already gets one of two reactions when people discover her last name: The person either becomes “fearful'' or tells her they know a Pettway relative.

“Being a Pettway, I feel, it may be hard,'' Jasmine said. “When people find out (they say), `Oh you're related to them.' I think it's sad because we are more than that. I think it's mostly because we are large in number that is the intimidating factor. We are not intimidating people.''

Another young Pettway, who asked that his name not be used, said his family is comprised of “a loving group of people who go out of their way to help others.''

“The strong Baptist/Pentecostal background is a testament of our faith and to do moral good on society,'' he said.

The young man, who is from Bridgeport, said White's kidnapping “was not moral in any sense, however, it is not a broad expression of the family.''

Several of Mary E. Pettway's 10 children and 21 grandchildren are studying to become preachers, according to a Pettway family reunion website. Ann Pettway is listed as Mary's daughter and Nejdra Nance as a grandchild.

Craig Kelly, a former NAACP president and city firefighter, said he has worked with several Pettways in the fire department, including former deputy fire chief Earl Pettway. “They are hard-working people,'' he said. “They do their jobs; they take care of their children. They just happen to be in one city in large numbers.''

“I don't know the Pettways as any notorious family. This is not `The Godfather,''' Kelly added. “It's like any other family in the world if you look at how large the family is in relation to how many people were arrested. You have family members that get in the paper a couple of times and people are quick to judge.''

Family loyalty

That the Pettways stand by each other and refuse to speak negatively about each other says something about their ties to each other, said some city residents. That kind of loyalty is rare in families today and should be admired, said Carolyn Nah, former president of the Greater Bridgeport chapter of the NAACP and a local civil rights leader.

“They are very close,'' Nah said.'' They don't walk away from their children. Most African people are very tied to their families. Southern people used to be like that. The Pettways have that kind of mentality.''

A 1991 New York Times article about the Pettway quilters of Gee's Bend also noted that the family remains close to relatives down South.

“Even as they have made their mark in the community, they have maintained strong ties to their ancestral home, returning frequently for holidays and reunions, dropping off children for extended periods with their grandparents,'' the article said.

That still holds true today.

Just as the local Pettways get together annually at Seaside Park on Labor Day, relatives throughout the nation meet up regularly for family reunions.

A second Pettway family reunion website established to organize a 2011 cruise to the Caribbean, which was later canceled, makes reference to relatives from Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and Tennessee, in addition to Connecticut.

Although it is unclear how many Pettways reside in Bridgeport _ Jasmine Pettway said she would love to know the number _ most everyone asked agrees that they are the largest family in the city.

“For me, it's like I'm a Pettway,'' said Jasmine. “That's my name. I meet a Pettway every day. Know me as an individual first.''