The Making of A Judge
By Nancy Callahan
Vol. 9, No. 4, 1987, pp. 9-13, 16
In 1816, North Carolina planter Joseph Gee bought a massive tract of land in a bend in the Alabama River, in Wilcox County. On his death in 1824, his plantation-Gee’s Bend-fell to his nephews, Sterling and Charles Gee. Charles managed the behemoth holdings; Sterling returned to North Carolina to run another family inheritance. And it is thought by some that in the ensuing years they used Gee’s Bend to run a slave-trading network between Alabama and North Carolina.
By 1845, the two were in debt to their nephew, Mark H. Pettway, for $29,000. Pettway’s payoff was Gee’s Bend, thousands of acres of dark, fertile soil, an agricultural dream illustrating why that region of Alabama came to be called the “Black Belt.”
Pettway and his family rode to Alabama in a caravan in 1846. Traveling with them were more than one hundred slaves who, except for a cook, walked every step of the way. The episode set in motion one of the most powerful black histories in all the South.
Mark Pettway changed the names of all his slaves to “Pettway.” After Emancipation, they became tenants or
sharecroppers–on that same, white-owned Pettway land. In 1895, ownership of Mark Pettway’s original four thousand acres left the family, but his name remained with his former slaves and their children, who continued to work the soil . In 1900, the VandeGraaff family of Tuscaloosa bought the Pettway land plus three thousand adjacent acres. Still, the black Pettways stayed.
Leaving would have been hard, if not impossible. As the crow flies, Gees Bend is only seven miles from Camden the county seat. But a ferry across the Alabama River was unreliable, and by land the trip was forty miles each way. Staying where they were, in a totally black culture save for the few white landowners and their families, was the practical thing for the Pettways to do. Practical, but isolated.
The Great Depression had a shattering impact on the black farmers of Gee’s Bend. Cotton prices were too low to sell, and when a Camden merchant who had given credit died, his widow liquidated sixty Gee’s Bend families, her agents collected everything from hogs and chickens to still standing sugar cane. With a diet of plums and nuts during the winter of 1932-33, Gee’s Bend residents would have starved had it not been for staples shipped in by the Red Cross.
In 1935, isolated, poverty-stricken, all-black Gee’s Bend became a focal point of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration, which became the Farm Security Administration (FSA). In came the federal government with its blueprints and money to fashion an ideal community, the archetype for future projects nationwide.
In 1937, the VandeGraaffs sold Gee’s Bend to Farm Security’s state branch, the Alabama Rural Rehabilitation Corporation. With the bend in government ownership, Roosevelt’s people put together a cooperative, Gee’s Bend Farms, Inc. The result was a hundred new farms of sixty to one hundred acres, each with a new house, barn and modern trimmings–such as pressure cookers. It was a life like that outside the bend. Co-op members acquired the homesteads through low interest government loans, and rented crop land from the government and farmed it cooperatively.
From the government drawing boards also came a school, health clinic, canning center and blacksmith shop; fresh-faced experts appeared with knowledge about medicine, home economy and agriculture.
However, in 1945, Congress ended the FSA, which in turn had to get rid of the Gee’s Bend government-owned farms. The land passed to a new agency, Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which by 1947 enabled Franklin Roosevelt’s friends, the Pettways, to buy that government land-the land their ancestors had begun to work after walking from North Carolina a hundred years earlier.
The government still wasn’t through. In 1949, a post office was erected, and by mandate the community’s name was changed to “Boykin” as tribute to its congressman, Frank Boykin of Mobile, whom none of the Gee’s Benders had ever seen. In 1962, Congress authorized a lock and dam at nearby Miller’s Ferry, and in 1968, when that expensive facility opened, a third of “Boykin” was turned into a lake. Then in 1974, federal courts closed the high school in this all-black enclave-because the school was segregated. Thus, Gee’s Bend students began daily one-hundred mile bus rides to another school which, due to white flight, was by then also all-black.
Despite its isolation, Gee’s Bend citizens participated in the civil rights movement. Even Martin Luther King came one rainy day to preach at a local church. Through his urgings, people joined the civil rights movement centered in Selma, and were on hand for the lesser-publicized protests in Camden. They marched, went to jail, and finally registered to vote.
Perhaps the most momentous political event came in the summer of 1984, when one of their own was sworn in as district judge of Wilcox County. Jo Celeste Pettway, an honors law graduate of the University of Alabama, was appointed by then-Gov. George C. Wallace, who twenty-one summers earlier had attempted to block a black from enrolling at his alma mater.
Judge Pettway, now thirty-five years old, is the first black woman judge ever in Alabama. To those of her name, she is history’s way of correcting itself. She is the final granddaughter who has given meaning to those hundred slaves who in 1846 would never have even dreamed of her possibilities. She is the ultimate Pettway.
Dressed in a solid, bold-pink dress behind her office desk at the courthouse annex in Camden, Judge Pettway is sensitive to her family heritage.
What does it mean to be a Pettway?, she is asked.
“It means being a member of perhaps the best family in the world,” she replies, “because there is a great history in that name that goes with this region of the country. When
I go places and people ask me, ‘Where are you from?,’ I say, ‘My folks are from Gee’s Bend, a small town in Alabama.’ Then they say, ‘I know a Pettway from such-end-such,’ and I always say, ‘If they’re a Pettway, they had to come from Gee’s Bend because it’s where all the Pettways come from.’
“When you go to that place and you see it, you say,’Well, it’s not the best place in the world because they don’t have a lot of facilities and luxuries, but it’s where my father was taught by his grandmother who raised him that you’re supposed to work and strive and earn a living and do good. It’s something that community instilled in its children and they in theirs. I wasn’t raised in Gee’s Bend but having a father and a great-grandmother who were, those traits are instilled in me and hopefully will be passed down to the children I have.”
Pettway also links herself with a heritage beyond Gee’s Bend or mid-19th century North Carolina-to the “Middle Passage,” when slaves were brought to the United States from Africa.
“You always hear about how many who voyaged across the Atlantic Ocean did not survive, and you always think that those who actually survived the Middle Passage and landed on this continent had to have been the strongest and the best.
“That would mean those hundred who came from North Carolina would have to have been stronger and better. So we’re talking about a good stock of people; they survived the Middle Passage. Whether they were actually the ones who came from Africa or descendants of those who Came, that strength and that blood enabled them to survive.”
Still other survival stories note the strength of Judge Pettway’s ancestry. She says her maternal great-great-grandmother, also a slave from North Carolina, was the mother of six children. When she was sold to Alabama bringing all her children with her was not part of the deal. Four had to stay behind. And of the two who accompanied their mother on the journey to Mobile, one died.
“Just one survived, but that one child had 16 children who, in turn, had so many more.”
Likewise, Judge Pettway’s great-grandmother had 10 children. She and her husband divorced. She was a sharecropper and raised the children by herself.
“And she was a successful woman. So on both sides of the family there are horrible stories where people blossomed and multiplied out of adverse circumstances. Just knowing that you come from people who are strong and did well compared to circumstances makes you feel good about yourself and makes you believe you can do things when other people think you can’t.”
Judge Pettway’s parents are Joseph and Menda Gamble Pettway, who have long lived in the community of Alberta, 24 miles north of Camden. Her mother had wanted to be a nurse, but in her day, there were no Alabama nursing schools for blacks, so she graduated from Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery, with tuition paid by her mother’s egg and chicken money, and became a teacher. On the birth of her daughter, she left the classroom and ran the family store, Pettway’s Place. Joseph Pettway started as a laborer in 1940 with Southern Railway and had worked his way up to foreman when he retired in 1968.
Celeste herself attended Alberta Elementary School, then Catholic schools in Selma and Birmingham, and finally Alabama Lutheran Academy in Selma, where she graduated. Much of her growing up took place on weekdays in the homes of various Selma relatives, followed by weekends with her parents, then return trips to school in Selma on Monday mornings.
When Judge Pettway was a child in the late Fifties and early Sixties, the Dallas/Wilcox region, as it had for a century, had a black-majority population but white-dominated politics.
“I don’t know as a child that you thought so much about things like that. The schools I attended were black schools, but they were never talked about as being inferior. The attitude always was: We are not getting the money that we need, but we’re doing well with what we have; and I always thought that if we had gotten a very proportionate amount of money, our schools would probably have been excellent because I started off in a one-room school with a partition that separated the one room into two rooms. There were eight grades in those two rooms. One teacher taught four grades and did a wonderful job, I think.”
The word “discrimination” was not in her childhood vocabulary, largely because her parents never taught it to her.
“My parents never said, ‘You can’t go to this place.’ We would go shopping in Selma. The water fountains said ‘white’ and ‘colored.’ As a child you don’t know there’s a difference, and a lot of times I would head over to the fountain marked ‘white.’ Mother would let me drink out of it. She would say, ‘She’s a child; she doesn’t know.’ And my folks never said, ‘You’re different,’ or ‘You’re inferior.'”
The first time she remembers being hit in the face with segregation was in 1962 on a thirty-mile Greyhound bus trip by herself from Selma to Alberta.
“When I got on, there was one seat open and it was a front seat. I sat there and when the bus driver came on, he made me get up and move to the back. I had to stand up for 30 miles. All the way home I looked at the faces of the people on the bus and wondered why he made me get up, why those people allowed him to do that, why wouldn’t they stand up and say, ‘Let this child sit down.'”
As Celeste grew older, she asked questions.
“My folks would say, ‘This is what the law says. That doesn’t mean it’s right, but you abide by the law.’ I felt the law was wrong because my folks said it was wrong and I knew my folks wouldn’t lie to me. It was a feeling that somebody for probably selfish economic reasons made those laws to discriminate against us. We had to endure them but it didn’t mean we were inferior. It just meant we would probably have to work harder and do better.
“What kept us going was our faith that God wouldn’t let us stay like that always. You know, people deserve to be free and deserve an opportunity to do as much as they can. All our parents knew that sooner or later, things were going to change.”
Prior to Martin Luther King’s campaign to achieve voting rights for blacks, Menda Pettway had become a registered voter in Dallas County, but Joseph Pettway had been denied that right. So they joined Dr. King’s movement. It became common practice for Celeste’s father to go to Selma on days when the voter registration office was open and take the test. She said he had been determined to achieve his right to vote since the 1952 presidential election, because at noon on that election day, the whites with whom he had been working left to vote, while the blacks had to stay behind.
“Daddy said it just incensed him that he was an American, living and working here, but could not participate as a first-class citizen.”
Consequently, every time the voter office was open, Joseph Pettway would be there to take the test. His daughter estimates that he was refused registration at least 75 times, the letters always saying he had flunked the literacy exam, when, in fact, he could read. And for his efforts, his grocery store was boycotted one summer by white wholesalers.
When the Selma campaign peaked in 1965, Celeste, age 13, was a student at St. Elizabeth’s in Selma. The family plan was for her mother and brother, eight years her junior, to be in the marches, for her father to march when he did not have to work, and for Celeste to stay in school and attend only the night-time rallies.
“My folks said,’We’ll do the marching. You go to school.'”
At Brown’s Chapel and First Baptist Church, she saw and heard the stars of civil rights: Dr. C. T. Vivian, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Hosea Williams-and Dr. King.
“There’s nothing to compare with hearing those great orators and then seeing Dr. King enter the church. The crowd became as one. It was as though this was the anointed one who was going to lead us from slavery to freedom, like with Moses. But Moses probably did not command the respect, attention and obedience that Dr. King did, because the children of Israel constantly battled against Moses and disobeyed. With Dr. King, everybody knew, ‘Now this is the man who’s gonna do it.’ His presence was something I have never experienced before or since.”
Judge Pettway says from the time she was six years old she knew she wanted to be a lawyer even if she didn’t know exactly what it meant. Her early role models were Orzelle Billingsley and Peter Hall, black Birmingham attorneys who handled civil rights cases in the 1950s, and Constance Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench in New York. Billingsley and Hall would associate with local white lawyers and try cases in courtrooms filled with blacks, including the Pettways, who learned, if nothing else, that it was possible for a black person to become an attorney
“Sometimes my folks would go sit in courtrooms and listen to them. They would come back home and talk about how they sounded and how the crowds reacted to them. To my folks, the law was seen as the way things were going to change. It was going to be the instrument by which things were going to change. And it was seen as a way of helping people to make things happen. So I always wanted to be a lawyer, always, my entire life. And it didn’t change. I got side-tracked but it never changed.”
Her first side-track was Auburn University, where she enrolled as a freshman in 1969. Of fifteen thousand students, Celeste was one of ten black women and about fifty-five black males.
“I had some bad experiences at Auburn,” she relates with great sadness. “I had a professor in my major, political science, who said, ‘I use nigger, negro and black interchangeably. Whichever word I choose on this particular day, it all means the same thing.’ I had to sit in that class with that man saying nigger and negra for a quarter. I talked to the chairman of the department and said, ‘I can’t sit in here with this man saying that. It doesn’t make any sense. Why is he still using these words this day and time?’ He said, ‘Well, he’s tenured. There’s nothing I can do about it.’ I had a girlfriend who graduated from Auburn in 1979. She said he was still doing the same thing then.
“And I remember sitting through a history class and the instructor trying to tell me that my ancestors enjoyed slavery, it was a wonderful state and purely economical. Nobody was ever branded. No one was ever beaten. Children were never taken away from their parents. It has always been in somebody’s imagination. Having to sit through that crap for a quarter leaves a bit to be desired, but I got through it. I wouldn’t go through it again, I don’t think. It was a balancing act. There were good people and bad people, but you live and learn, you grow and go on.”
The future judge received her B.A. from Auburn in 1973, and, unable to find a job with her political science major,
went back to Auburn for a teacher’s certificate. When she still could not obtain employment she enrolled at the University of Alabama, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, then joined the staff of the Children’s Aid Society, in Birmingham, an adoption agency; she later worked for the Alabama Department of Pensions and Security.
By 1977, she was back in school working toward a master’s degree in social work from the University of Alabama. She got her diploma in 1978, and spent 1978-79 teaching social work at Miles College in Birmingham. Finally, in 1979, she entered law school at the University of Alabama, where she received her degree in 1982.
Of some 550 law students during Pettway’s three-year stay, possibly thirty-five were black. But her experiences as a black were totally different from the ones she encountered at Auburn. She does not recall even the first racial incident during her study of law.
~What helped in law school was anonymous grading. Each semester we were assigned a different number. When we took our exams at the end of the semester, the only thing on there was our number. Supposedly, no one knew who’s paper they were grading. I had heard some professors there did not like women or blacks. I think that is the reason they started using that system.”
In 1982, Celeste Pettway, 30, entered law practice with the black Tuscaloosa firm of John England and John Bivens. Two years later she set up a solo practice in the same city, not making much money but doing lots of juvenile case work, traditionally thrown by judges there to the lawyers with fresh careers.
But events were transpiring in Wilcox County that would change her life and Alabama history.
Circuit Judge Edgar P. Russell Jr., who had presided over the five county judicial circuit that includes Wilcox County, announced his impending retirement. A few months later, Gov. Wallace elevated Wilcox County District Judge Anne Farrell McKelvey to the circuit judgeship and named Jo Celeste Pettway to fill the district judgeship vacated by McKelvey.
Pettway did not campaign for the job, but many others did on her behalf, including a Wilcox delegation that met with the governor’s office and argued that the time was ripe for such an appointment. Supporting that mission was the Rev. Thomas Threadgill, a black Presbyterian minister from Camden, who had brought Dr. King into Wilcox to lead voter registration after the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
“We let it be known to the governor that we wanted her appointed,” says Threadgill. “In fact, I just insisted through Hollis Curl (publisher of the weekly Wilcox Progressive Era) and everybody I thought who had any pull in any way. I just insisted that she was the person for this position.
“I had heard of her ability and of the decency of the person. Her parents are very strong, sound people, always making contributions to the church and the community. That was one of the reasons I just knew even before I knew her well that she would be the person.”
On August 9,1984, Jo Celeste Pettway, who remembers standing for a thirty-mile bus ride because her skin is black, was sworn into office. Holding the Bible for the ceremony was her father, Joseph Pettway, who in 1952 had watched his white co-workers leave work to vote for president while black workers stayed on the job.
The courtroom where she now presides was packed with people of both races. Giving the invocation was Rev. Dennis Nolen, a white Presbyterian minister in Camden. “That was unusual,” says Threadgill. “The white ministers here get so much pressure from their congregations and their peers, they can’t do a lot of things they want to do.”
In 1986, Judge Pettway ran for election to a full term; she had no opposition, but campaigned anyway.
“Some people said they might run,” she said of her lack of opposition, “and I just told ’em if they wanted a good kicking to come on, ’cause I was in the kicking business. It didn’t matter with me who came out ’cause I enjoyed what I was doing and I was gonna try to keep doing it.”
Although black lawyers practice in Wilcox County, the handful of those who live and work in Camden are white. One is Donald M. McLeod, the assistant district attorney, who grew up in the town. He is before Judge Pettway’s bench at least weekly and often daily.
“She has a good legal mind,” he says, “and she’s prepared when she sits on the bench. In a number of cases that I’ve handled before her, she’s been appointed as an acting circuit judge. At that level the cases are more difficult, but I’ve found that she’s done her homework before she gets there. In one case in particular, I could tell she had researched the law because she had the same cases and citations that I did. A lot of judges don’t do that. I guess I deal with her more than any lawyer here and I’ve never considered race to be a factor. It’s a non-issue.”
Nor has Judge Pettway seen any racial problems stemming from her being black in this county of seventeen thousand (83 percent black).
“I think there’s a respect for the judicial system,” she offers. “I had a white attorney say something to the effect, ‘I don’t particularly respect YOU . but I respect the position ‘ And I don’t have any problems with that. I’m not here for people to like me or love me. I’m here to do a job, and as long as I think I’m doing a good job, I want to stay. As long as they follow the rules of the court, they can hate me; I don’t care.”
“I realize,” says she, “that being the first black woman district judge in Alabama is historically significant, but my attitude is that it could have been anybody. I know a lot of black women lawyers who could have been the first and they
would have done a good job. I really feel blessed that I’m a district judge.
“Sometimes people look at me skeptically when I say this but I think it’s all part of God’s plan for what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel like I have a real purpose and a special opportunity to help children. I’ve been a social worker. I’ve always loved children, and being a district judge, I get to work with juvenile court and try to help change lives while they’re young.”
Part of her motivation, too, is in being a member of her family.
“My parents always told us about the sacrifices made by grandparents and great-grandparents to give us a strong idea of where we’ve come from and a hope for where we could go. My maternal grandmother never let her children go hungry because she would work the entire summer to get ’em through the winter: canning plums, putting up muscadines and pears. And she would make quilts from old clothes. When those quilts wore out she would use them to start making other quilts, so everything was recycled. And inside their home they would look up at night and see the stars, look down and see the animals through the cracks in the floor. Lots of times they had nothing to show for it because my maternal grandfather was a sharecropper who never owned property. They moved from one place to another. But my grandmother always wanted the children to have an education. She would sell things to get a little money to help.
“And when Mother went on to college, she said she had two pairs of socks. She knew she had to wear one and wash the other so she would always have a clean pair. And she had one dime a day to spend for lunch.
“Knowing that gives you a sense of purpose. To me, it says you can’t let your ancestors down. When I think about my maternal grandmother and my paternal great-grandmother, the kind of women they were, the kind of man my Daddy is and the kind of woman my Mother is, you don’t let people like that down. You don’t get to a point and say,’I can’t do it.’ You look back at them and you say, ‘Whatever I want to do, I can do it, because look what they did.’ And you just go on, and it’s good. Yeah, it’s good.”
Nancy Callahan is a freelance writer from Montgomery. Her book, The Freedom Quilting Bee, will be published this fall by the University of Alabama Press.