Living witness 

When it comes to Arkansas black history, Annie Abrams has just about seen it all.

In an illustrated history of signal African-American events in the past half century, one person would be always in the picture: Annie Mable McDaniel Abrams.

She'd be by Daisy Bates' side in a tableau of the 1957 crisis. Presenting Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller a gift of buttermilk in 1971. In Little Rock's Martin Luther King Marade, which she founded in 1986. Whispering into Bill Clinton's ear, as she was in an Associated Press photograph. Whispering into Blanche Lincoln's ear, in another. And Gov. Mike Beebe's, in a third.

At age 78, retired from a career in education for 17 years, she's still very much on the scene, representing the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods at Little Rock Board of Directors meetings, challenging state Lottery Director Ernie Passailaigue at a Political Animals lunch, attending benefits for Our House, on whose board she sits. At lectures at the Clinton School of Public Service, where she's known as Little Rock's Helen Thomas because she's sure to ask a question. (She's known as "Miss Annie" otherwise.)

You can find her in video form, as well, throwing her support to Democrats seeking state and national office, on their campaign websites.

Abrams is herself a walking, talking history book. It's history in an often circuitous form ? this reporter recently asked her something about the Democratic Black Caucus and got a lecture on how political interest groups evolve before the caucus came back into the conversation. (She often recalls how her late husband, Orville, used to remark on how she could pick up where she left off after long digressions.)

But Abrams doesn't live in the past. She's current on the issues of today, and the go-to person for state and local politicians.

Like Mayor Mark Stodola, who says she's refreshingly “engaged.” While some who fight the good fight burn out, “she's just the opposite.”

As Rodney Slater, her friend and former Secretary of Transportation in the Clinton administration, says, she's got a finger “on top of the pulse of the community.”

If it's hard to point a finger to Abrams' individual achievements, it's because her impact has been as a voice, expressing, in every forum, the many concerns of the people. Perennially described as an “activist” and a “neighborhood leader” in newspaper articles (or “Little Rock's own dear Annie Abrams” on the Democrat-Gazette editorial page), Abrams says her real contribution is communicating “the big picture, the long-term impact on future generations” of today's actions.

“It's very hard to reduce Annie to the written page,” said Kathy Wells, a long-time activist who will succeed Abrams as president of the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods. “She is a treasure that is not sufficiently recognized in the work of improving our community.” Wells' word for Abrams: “In all capital letters, FACILITATOR.”

Another word would be advisor. She once told Stodola, who was coming up against resistance during a meeting about the city's neighborhood revitalization plans, to calm down. She told him, Stodola recalled, “You were getting angry. Your face has turned red and you need to stop that.”

Governor Beebe, shown getting an earful from Abrams over lunch at the Kitchen Express, said, “Her leaning over and whispering is typical of our relationship … She's not bashful about offering advice and it's usually good.” He described her as a “mother tiger. She defends her cubs, whoever she thinks they are, no matter their color or station. She'll jump on me and then turn around and defend me as one of her cubs.”

Abrams says she may be one of the few people to see Beebe cry. She'd told him he didn't need to bring up his mother's hardships on the campaign trail.

When you call Annie Abrams on the phone, you're likely to get a recording, since she's always out. “Hello, this is me, Annie Abrams,” she sings out. “Service is the rent we pay to stay on God's earth. I'm paying my rent. Do you have rent to pay today?”

She's so busy paying rent that it was hard finding a time to meet. There was the Arkansas Fair Housing retreat, the Complete Count Committee of the U.S. Census Bureau meeting, the NAACP retreat, where president Dale Charles said she did a “phenomenal job” in relating the history of the organization and its value. The PTA Founder's Day Luncheon (she was the first black president of Central's PTA). The King/Kennedy event, where the Annie Abrams Community Service Award would be presented. A racial and cultural workshop, something at the Mosaic Templars, a ceremony at the Fire Department to honor an old friend, a meeting with David Margolick, who's writing a book about Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Massery and the famous 1957 photograph. And she had to cook a chicken for church.

But somehow, this reporter got in the door, and was ushered to the dining room table, which is perpetually set with china but laden not with food but documents and photographs and other various ephemera. Abrams had put together a folder, and across the top sheet was written “A short introductory tour of Black History in the private museum home of Annie Mable McDaniel Abrams.” This reporter isn't one to turn down an idea on how to structure a story, so we went with the flow.

The first stop on the tour would be the foyer of Abrams' 100-year-old house on Wolfe Street, where photographs of President and Michelle Obama and an invitation to a “non-partisan luau” 47th birthday party she threw for Obama with the help of contributions, including some from “rich Republicans,” are displayed on a velveteen settee. But before we started the tour, Abrams talked about her personal history.

Holding her now-worn baby picture, a small snapshot of her in a bonnet and fancy dress, she talked about her grandfather, who raised her after her father died after a truck crash on the way to his CCC job, and her mother, who sent her to Little Rock at age 13 to get a good education at the all black Dunbar High School.

Abrams' grandfather, James Arnold, who during his life was a farmer, sawmill worker and domestic help for two “old maids, white women,” lived in the black Clark County community of Happy Hill as a young man. As his granddaughter would be, he was a proponent of education, persuading the local school board to build a schoolhouse in Happy Hill and loaning his mule to teachers to bring them there. “Papa” was himself illiterate; Abrams eventually taught him how to spell his name. One of the women he worked for was a member of the Arkansas Education Association, as Abrams would be one day, a fact she delights in, an illustration of how history turns the tables. “It all comes full circle,” she says.

In 1978, when Abrams was getting ready to go to Geneva, Switzerland, to represent the North American chapter of the YWCA, “Papa” fell ill. He told her to go ahead and go abroad. Abrams says he told her, “My prayers are that you will be somebody someday.” He died shortly after her return.

Abrams might never have been a member of the YWCA, or risen to an elevated status within it, or had a 25-year career with the AEA (after its merger with the black teachers' group, the Arkansas Teachers Association) or been considered for a job with the National Education Association (one she said Sen. John McClellan put her up for), had her mother, Queen Victoria Annie Katherine Reed, not sent her away from Arkadelphia to Little Rock to attend Dunbar Junior High.

In Arkadelphia, the young Annie had been called out of middle school to substitute when the elementary school's teachers fell ill. “Mother knew that wasn't good for me,” Abrams said. So at age 13, Annie McDaniel was sent to live with Herbert Denton, the principal of the old Stephens Elementary, and his wife, Lucille, who was her cousin, in their Ringo Street home. As part of the arrangement, she helped take care of the Dentons' son, Herbert Denton Jr., who attended Harvard and became the first black city editor of the Washington Post before he died of AIDS in 1989.

Abrams got involved with the YWCA, then at 10th and Gaines streets. “Lucille Gaines thought that was a quality that I needed for social development,” Abrams said. Soon, Abrams said, “I was known as a little leader.” Twenty years later, Abrams would sit on the board of the YWCA, during its big integration push in the 1970s.

In 1952, two years after she graduated from Dunbar High, Abrams graduated from Dunbar Junior College and was offered a scholarship to attend Brandeis University in Massachusetts, but it was still too expensive. Instead, she moved to Marianna, where she taught elementary students in a three-room school. The Brickeys unit of the state's Department of Correction is there now; there are probably 700 inmates there, Abrams said as an aside, “that can read no more than my third graders.”
Abrams returned to Little Rock in 1956 to work for the Arkansas Teachers Association. She married Orville Abrams and had four children ? and then enrolled in Philander Smith. She quickly became involved in Democratic politics, and in the mid-'60s joined a Democratic women's group campaigning for Republican Winthrop Rockefeller for governor.

Abrams had a story about Rockefeller. When he left office in 1971, the women Democrats presented him with a cut glass decanter. Abrams didn't like the gift herself, because she thought it would hurt him to give him something so obviously related to whiskey, which the governor was famously fond of and criticized for. And when he was presented the decanter, still in its box, he did look pained, guessing at what it contained. Then, Abrams said, she stepped forward and said, “Governor, we've filled it with your favorite drink. It's Bulgarian buttermilk, isn't it?” That's what she'd put in it.

Years later, Abrams got to know Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller. Lucille Denton, her cousin, had once cared for his son over a weekend when he was little and had taught him to bless his food before a meal. Abrams asked the lieutenant governor to tell that story to disadvantaged parents in a program she coordinated at the Little Rock School District headquarters and though he was painfully shy, he agreed. (District officials, who'd shunted her group from the board room into a downstairs lounge, were shocked when they saw him arrive at the office, she added.)

Sounding a lot like a former president, but infinitely more sincere, Abrams said, “I feel people's pain.”

Jane Wolfe, the former world president of the YWCA and onetime resident of Little Rock, was instrumental in Abrams' climb in the Y organization in the 1970s. “She was just a shining light,” Wolfe said. Her most notable characteristic was her “enormous love of people and her absolute compassion.”

Next to the photograph of President Obama on the settee in the foyer was an autographed reproduction of the front page of a 2004 Chicago Tribune, which featured a large photograph of Barack Obama speaking at the Democratic National Convention. Also on the cover: Annie Abrams' picture, with a story on delegates to the convention. It was the fifth convention she'd attended. At her first, in 1972, she'd voted for Shirley Chisholm. In 2008, she voted for Obama. She believes those votes are among the most important things she's ever done.

Another would be caring for her husband, Orville Abrams Sr., who suffered a massive stroke in 1970, when their oldest child was only 13. Abrams cared for her husband at home for 25 years; he died in 2000.

Orville Abrams had been a bartender at the Riverdale Country Club, where he'd waited on some of the leaders of the time.

One night, she said, the men in the bar were telling University of Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles he was going to lose games unless he put a black man on the Razorbacks team. Broyles told them there was no way he'd do such a thing.

“My husband never forgave Frank Broyles,” Abrams said, though Broyles would eventually relent to the tide of desegregation.
But Orville Abrams had a better relationship with another famous white man he'd see in the bar: Orval Faubus. Because of their names, Faubus called Orville Abrams “namesake.” After his infamous decision to block the desegregation of Central High School, Faubus told Orville Abrams he was the only bartender he could trust to make his martini without spitting in it.

When Orville Abrams Jr. was born in 1961, his parents gave him the middle name “Eugene.” Abrams says she wasn't naming her son for the governor, but the coincidence caused him a lot of grief at school.

In the Abramses' foyer: A copy of “Down from the Hills,” Faubus' autobiography, a gift from Orville Jr.

Abrams said Faubus hoped to go on television in Little Rock to endorse Jesse Jackson for the Democratic National Convention in 1988. But, on the way to the Fayetteville airport to travel to Little Rock, Faubus' truck broke down and he couldn't get a ride. “He had a moment to redeem himself,” she said, “but no one would help.” She was sorry about that.

Abrams often grabs a prop from her “private museum” to make a point when she's talking. She pulled an Obama yard sign from behind a bookcase in the foyer when she explained why she campaigned for Obama rather than Hillary Clinton, though she admires Clinton and would have been pleased to see a woman win the presidency.

“I knew both were capable,” Abrams said. But she thought Hillary Clinton's campaign was an effort by former President Clinton to go for another four years. Obama's election would prove to the world, she said, how far the United States has come.

But Abrams has supported white candidates for public office over blacks, and come in for some criticism as a result. Her support for Jay Barth in his race for the District 34 state Senate seat held by Tracy Steele has gotten a cool reception from his primary opponent, State Rep. Linda Pondexter Chesterfield, chair of the Democratic Black Caucus.

When Abrams endorsed Gov. Mike Beebe's appointment of Phil Kaplan to chair the Martin Luther King Commission, “People jumped on me because my governor appointed a white man to take a black man's place,” Abrams said. But Kaplan, a Jew, “knows something about discrimination,” she said.

She defended making the mayor's job an elected one with real authority, though some thought it would spell the end of City Manager Bruce Moore.

And so she's been called, she said, an Aunt Nellie, the feminine form of Uncle Tom. But, she added, “at times they think I'm Malcolm X … a militant.”

And there are those who say, she acknowledged, who might say “ ‘I can't stand her. She's everywhere. Why does she get so many awards?' ”

There are many who sing her praises, including City Manager Moore. He described her as a “tremendous asset not only to the city but to the state of Arkansas. She approaches everything, whether political topics or community issues, by first looking through the lens of history. … It's almost a teaching moment in many instances with her.”

Moore threw a party for Abrams on her 78th birthday last year, on Sept. 25. It happens to be his son's birthday as well. There were two cakes at City Hall.

At the King/Kennedy dinner of the Black Caucus last week, it fell to Chesterfield to present the Annie Abrams Award for Community Service. It went to Theodoshia Cooper. It all comes full circle.

Next on the museum tour: Abrams' living room, where a television is always on, just as it is in her bedroom. One is tuned to Fox, the other to CNN. Crowded together on the mantel and other available surfaces are awards ? an acrylic pyramid embedded with the Liberty Bell, the “Making of the King Holiday Award,” presented to her by Coretta Scott King in 1993.

The Father Joseph Biltz Award of the Just Communities of Central Arkansas. The Brooks Hays Award for Civil Rights Champions. The Philander Smith College Community Service Award. The Democratic Party Chairman's Heritage Award. framed thank-you, from Dr. Carolyn Ann Smith, the Republican candidate for state House District 34. She called on Abrams for advice, even though she's a Republican and won't get Abrams' support. The thank-you features a reproduction of the AP photo capturing Abrams holding Bill Clinton's face in her hands and giving him a talking-to. (Abrams says it was taken at a Democratic rally after Clinton had spoken at length, and she was telling him to quit talking about himself and focus on the candidates.)

Her table is stacked high in books, from “Say It in Swahili” to “100 People Who Are Screwing America.” On the floor, a stack of African-American themed board games for children who might drop by. On a table, copies of the U.S. Constitution, next to a photograph of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who appointed Abrams to the Arkansas Sentencing Commission. “Who would have dreamed that he would end up a felon?” she said. In a bookcase, a pamphlet she created years ago for Carter Magnet Elementary about famous black Arkansans. One of them was, of course, Daisy Bates, the leader in the fight for the integration of Central High, and Abrams' close friend. Abrams supported Bates through thick and thin, the thinnest being the end of her life when an impoverished Bates was, according to Abrams, both exploited and ignored. After the ceremony at a scholarship banquet where an award named for Bates was presented, Abrams was indignant that the centerpiece was presented to the youngest attendee. She asked the young man if she could have the flowers ? they were daisies ? and he agreed. Abrams took the flowers to Bates in her Southwest Little Rock nursing home.

“When she lay in state in the State Capitol,” Abrams said, Abrams leaned over the coffin for a last word. “I said, ‘Remember when you couldn't even come in here? Now you are the first black to lie in state here.' ” Full circle.

On to the back of the house on Wolfe Street, into a large sunny kitchen where Abrams methodically stacks newspapers going back 60 days. Stacked on the washing machine are binders of information for some of the boards she sits on, including the Central Little Rock Community Development Corp. and the Civil Rights Working Group of the FBI.

In a room off the kitchen, Abrams pulls out a drawer in a chest to reveal hundreds of funeral programs. She keeps the program for every funeral she attends, has written many of them, she says. Next drawer, business cards from everyone she's ever known. In the hallway, an 80-gallon plastic tub full of photographs. Someday, she says, she's going to write on the back of them so folks will know who's in the picture. So she doesn't have to remember where she's been, she keeps stationery from every hotel she's stayed in. In a cabinet, old tapes of a Comcast public access channel broadcast of “The State Press in Review.” “I was the Oprah Winfrey of the State Press,” she laughs.

Come on, she gestures. In a back bedroom is another chest of drawers, one each containing her memorabilia from cherished trips to Ghana, Hawaii and Egypt. She hopes to go to Japan ? but that will mean a new drawer.

There are T-shirts from every political event on the planet. Little Rock school directories (with the exception of the 1957 directory, which went missing during the time she spent working on the 40th anniversary of Central High's desegregation and turning the old Mobil gas station in front of the school into a museum). Woe be to the archivist who may someday go through the mountains of photographs and other ephemera in the Abrams “museum.”

“Anybody who's writing about the history of Little Rock in the second part of the 20th century has to go to her when it concerns matters of race,” “Elizabeth and Hazel” author Margolick said. Yes, ask Abrams a question and you'll hear a “torrent” of words. But listen and learn, he says: She's “insightful and intelligent. … She's a very wise woman.”

Hanging from the door frame in nearly every room is an outfit in a dry cleaning bag. You never know, she says, when the television or press will come calling. She'll be ready.


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