Annie Abrams is a civic activist, a pursuer of social justice, an educator and a cultural worker. She’s also a museum curator, and she holds court on her front porch.
“My front porch is a famous place,” Abrams says.
When she’s not out and about, Abrams sits on her front porch, waving to passers-by who honk their greetings and waiting for the next visitor to stop by and join her.
She opened her home at the corner of Little Rock’s Wolfe Street and Charles Bussey Avenue as a museum earlier this year.
Carefully arranged stacks of books, magazines and newspapers — Ebony, Forbes, Life, the Chicago Defender, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and more stand throughout her home. There are baskets of political buttons and posters and T-shirts hanging on walls.
“This is a billboard for that organization and when I put it on, I’m advertising the action plan that they have and their mission statement,” she says of the shirts, hanging on display and folded in boxes under a desk in her bedroom.
She has artwork, souvenirs from trips, photos, blueprints and funeral programs, too, for well-known people like Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height and Daisy Bates and for her husband, Orville Abrams, who died in 2000, and their son, Kenneth Wayne Abrams, who died in 2005.
“I collect,” says Abrams, 86, who was presented the Making of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Award by the national Martin Luther King Jr. Commission by Coretta Scott King. “I’m an archivist.”
Plaques cover the walls of a back room in her home, all bestowed upon Abrams for her work in the community. She tells children who visit that just as they get report cards that let them know how they are doing in school, she gets these to show how she’s doing in her city.
“They’re my report cards,” says Abrams, who was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2010.
She will soon have another recognition to add to her wall — the First Lady’s Woman in Public Service Award. She is to receive the award at the 20th Annual Women’s Foundation of Arkansas’ Power of the Purse luncheon, set for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday in the Statehouse Convention Center’s Wally Allen Ballroom.
Abrams will be honored alongside Marcy Doderer, chief executive officer of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, as Woman of the Year in Business; Ellon Cockrill as Woman of the Year in Philanthropy; and Mary Louise Williams, who will receive the Brownie Ledbetter Civic Engagement Award.
“Miss Annie is a force to be reckoned with, especially when she knows she is in the right, and she always is!” says first lady Susan Hutchinson. “This is especially true with her assistance to Daisy Bates to integrate Central High School; her push to establish the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade; and her insistence that High Street be renamed for Dr. King and 14th Street for Mrs. Bates. Arkansas is better because of Annie Abrams’ love in action.”
Abrams also led the campaign to rename 20th Street for Mayor Charles Bussey, Little Rock’s first black mayor.
Abrams grew up in Arkadelphia, the oldest of four children born to Queen Victoria Annie Katherine Reed. Her father died when she was 18 months old, but her grandfather, James Arnold, helped raise her.
The washboard her mother used to wash the laundry she took in hangs on Abrams’ kitchen wall.
“That little one,” she says, pointing to a miniature version hanging below it, “is the one my sister and I used when we were learning.”
Abrams attended the segregated Peak School in Arkadelphia, but when she was 13 her mother sent her to Little Rock for a more challenging education.
“There I was, a child, me being what they would now call a gifted and talented student, and when a teacher was out in the third, second or first grade, they would come get me in the sixth grade or the fifth grade because I could teach those kids,” Abrams says. “I was already ahead because by the time I got to school my mother had already taught me how to count and spell at least 100 words.”
In Little Rock, Abrams lived with her cousin Louise and her cousin’s husband, Herbert Denton, who was principal of Stephens Elementary. She attended Dunbar High School, named for author and poet laureate Paul Laurence Dunbar.
“It was not named ‘Little Rock Colored School’ like Fifty for the Future wanted to name it. Our people said, ‘Oh, no, no, no … we’re moving away from that,” Abrams says.
After graduation in 1950, she studied education at Dunbar Community College. She taught from 1952 until 1956 in a three-room elementary school at Marianna before returning to Little Rock to work with the Arkansas Teachers Association, which represented black educators.
She completed a bachelor’s degree in special education at Philander Smith College in 1962, after working and going to school part time.
In 1969, Abrams witnessed the merger of Arkansas Teachers Association with the all-white Arkansas Education Association.
She was friends by then with Rita Carpenter White, who lives two blocks away.
“I got acquainted with her because we moved into the neighborhood when it was predominantly white. As a matter of fact I was the first one in my block and I believe she might have been the first in her block,” White says.
White’s three children and Abrams’ four attended West Side Junior High.
“We were very concerned about the conditions back then and what happened at their school,” White says. “We became good friends because we were officers in the PTA and we visited the schools to make sure the children were doing OK.”
Katherine Mitchell, former Little Rock School Board member, baby-sat the Abrams children.
“She would always give me the rules and regulations to follow with her children. I was always to make sure that they did what they were supposed to do,” Mitchell says. “I never did have to punish them — all I had to do was remind them of what their mother told me and that was very effective in getting them to do what they were supposed to.”
Abrams became the first black PTA president at Central High, which she had worked with Bates to desegregate, and she served on the Little Rock PTA Council and the Arkansas PTA.
She and White joined the Urban League together, and White rose to be a national president at the Urban League Guild in New York.
“That’s how involved we were,” White says. “Our kids were part of what they called the Youth Steppers. That was a youth group that formed within the Urban League and that was the outlet for our children to be involved in community activities.”
They traveled together to national Urban League meetings in places like New York, Chicago and St. Louis, and brought information about trends and federal grants back to their own communities.
The Rev. Robert Willing-ham, who was Abrams’ pastor at Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, learned from Abrams about a parade being held elsewhere in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day.
“I asked her to organize a similar one for the Little Rock branch of the NAACP,” says Willingham, former president of that branch. “That was the beginning of the ‘marade’ that we have each year for Martin Luther King Jr.”
Willingham officiated over Orville Abrams’ funeral ceremony in 2000.
Orville and Annie Abrams bought the house she lives in in 1968.
“Two years later he had a massive aneurysm,” she says, still strolling through her home/museum, pointing out displays along the way.
She stops to talk about Orval Faubus. Her Orville became acquainted with the other Orval through his work, she explains.
“My husband was a bartender at the Riverdale Country Club,” she says. “He had also been a waiter at the Marion Hotel. It was the hotel of the capital city. That’s where everybody met.”
Orville Abrams also worked with Davidson Dental, delivering supplies to dentists all over the state.
“He knew the political world and he knew the dental world and he also knew the black community,” she says. “He knew everybody.”
She picked up her copy of Faubus’ book, Down From the Hills.
“Because my husband got to know him, even during that horrible time during 1957 when Eisenhower sent the 101st [Airborne Division], I got to know the man, also. I also got to know his wife,” she says.
She has gotten to know other first ladies and governors as well. She was involved early on with the Democratic Party, but joined with other women in the party to campaign for Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.
Throw pillows on the sofa in her living room are emblazoned with symbols representing both political parties.
“I’ll work just as hard for a Republican as I will for a Democrat,” she says before continuing the tour. “I tell them first I’m an Arkansan, I was born here, and secondly I’m an African-American.”
She’s no stranger at the Governor’s Mansion, and once cheekily pointed out to one governor that he was living in “public housing.”
“I said, ‘This is no mansion. You are not a king and you are not a queen,’” she says.
She meant no disrespect.
“You don’t have to figure out where you stand with Sister Abrams,” says the Rev. James Slater, pastor of Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock, where Abrams was a longtime member before transferring her membership to Mount Zion Baptist Church.
“She has a lot of wisdom and she could talk to you in a manner that you didn’t feel like you’d been chastised or anything,” he says. “She has this mothering, nurturing spirit that just kind of came out.”
Abrams was one of the first people to arrive after the Slaters’ daughter was killed in an accident.
“She brought over a pot of collard greens with ham hocks,” he says. “Now, that might not mean a lot to some people but people who grew up in a rural area know how much trouble that is.”
Slater was her deacon after her husband moved into a nursing home in the last few years of his life. She accompanied Slater on visits to sick and shut-in congregants, including her husband.
“One thing I noticed about her is that when we went out to visit him it would take 30 minutes for her to get back to his room because she would be speaking and talking and ministering to other people before she even got to her husband,” Slater says. “That spoke a lot about her character and her service and the spirit of her service. I was a new deacon and that was the best training I could have gotten. I learned about time, and that you shouldn’t be in a hurry because they may not see anyone else that day.”
Abrams had cared for her husband at home for 25 years, once taking him on one of her trips to a YWCA board meeting in New York.
“I took my grandbaby — she was 4 then — and she sat with him in the hotel across from Madison Square Garden, which my husband never dreamed he would be able to do, there crippled in a wheelchair,” Abrams says.
TURNING OFF THE METER
He had told her that she should tip a service person before service, because that would ensure she got the best treatment. She did that when she hired a cab driver to take them to see the hottest New York tourist spots.
“I gave him $50 when we got in and told him that whatever the meter said when we got back I would pay him that then,” she says.
The driver helped her husband get out of the cab and stand in front of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Coney Island and several other attractions.
“When we got back I said, ‘OK, now what did the meter say?’ He said, ‘I turned that meter off when I understood what you were trying to do for your husband,’” Abrams says. “He said, ‘I’m unmarried but I believe if I could find a woman who would do that for me ….’”
In 1978, Abrams went to Geneva as a YWCA delegate representing North America at the United Nations convention focusing on institutional racism.
“I was in Switzerland for three weeks,” she says. “I didn’t have voting rights — I couldn’t vote like an ambassador — but I could speak.”
That, of course, was years ago. Abrams’ activism hasn’t slowed.
“She’s just a good caring person and she remains relevant,” White says. “She fits into any situation that she’s in and she can expound on any world issues, community issues, statewide issues. She knows about it, she’s well-versed and she can expound on it and that’s a great gift.”
Abrams met with Gov. Asa Hutchinson on a recent morning, bending his ear on an issue involving incarceration.
“We need to give people second chances,” she says.
Hutchinson is, as were governors before him, well-acquainted with Abrams.
“Annie Abrams has spent her life challenging the status quo, and thank goodness for her persistence. She often faced opposition, which never stopped her, and even in the toughest of fights, she was kind and compassionate as well as forceful and determined. I visited her at her home when I was running for governor. She told me what she thought I ought to be doing. She taught me some history. And I left with a stack of books that she wanted me to read. She has been a wise counselor to me and so many others in leadership,” Hutchinson says.
“My favorite moment with Miss Annie was at the Capitol in March 2017 when I had the honor of signing the law that gave Dr. King his own state holiday in Arkansas. In a newspaper photograph taken at the signing, Miss Annie is holding copies of the law and smiling the smile that says it all about how she has lived her life. It has been a privilege for me to enjoy the occasional opportunity to stand in the light of Miss Annie’s smile.”
Abrams says she does what she does out of obligation, and she believes others should follow suit.
“Service is the rent you pay to stay on this Earth,” she says. “Have you paid any rent today?”
DATE, PLACE OF BIRTH: Sept. 25, 1931, Arkadelphia.
A BOOK I READ RECENTLY AND LIKED WAS: Minority Leader: How to Lead From the Outside and Make Real Change by Stacey Abrams. They say we favor.
SOMETHING I ALWAYS HAVE WITH ME: The U.S. Constitution, the New Testament and a directory of Arkansas legislators.
I WISH I COULD MEET: Oprah Winfrey.
MY MOST PRECIOUS MEMORY FROM CHILDHOOD: When I got to be a delegate to the Arkansas Baptist College. I was about 6 or 7.
I’M MOST COMFORTABLE: On the front porch when people come by to see me.
MY PROUDEST MOMENT: Was when I got to be a YWCA delegate representing North America at the United Nations conference.
MY FAVORITE MEAL: Chicken and dressing at the table with my family.
THE BEST PLACE ON EARTH: Is a place of worship.
MY CHILDREN WOULD SAY: I don’t know how to say no.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Love.