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HIGH PROFILE: Shirley Ruth Washington worked as schoolteacher, then principal, now Pine Bluff mayor

Pine Bluff called on Shirley Washington to aid its community — and she did. She worked as a schoolteacher, then principal, now city mayor. by Dwain Hebda | May 2, 2021 at 8:30 a.m.
“My work ethic, people see that I’m serious about the business because I’m not asking anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. You have to be driven; I am going to work equally as hard as I expect anybody else to work.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Moments ago, Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington strode into the small conference room just down the hall from her office, girded for battle. But noticing a mantel-mirror-size framed document in the corner, handwritten by a group of local schoolchildren and delivered just before she arrived, she peers through the glass at the kids' manifesto for the future. She starts to read.

"Live to give," she says, deliberately weighing the wisdom of each syllable. "We are the world. Young and gifted. We have dreams. We can see. Don't lie to us.

"Don't shoot, don't run after us," Washington's cadence quickens, words tumbling like rapid footsteps, tone like a mother's prayer. "Face the truth. Listen, let's talk about it. No violence. Leave drugs alone."

Washington reaches the bottom of the page, retreats to the chair at the head of the table and silently sits down. Such innocent dreams fed her life's work as an educator and drive her daily in her come-lately career as a politician. But seeing them here is knee-weakening stuff; a challenge and a promise, a call to arms and a cry for love, all wrapped up in one sparkly-stickered document.

"One of the things that I never let anybody tell me as a teacher, what I never wanted to know, was what grades a kid had made before coming to me," she says, eyes far-cast. "That's what some teachers would try to share with you in the teachers' lounge. They'd say, 'Don't waste a lot of time with this one because it's not there.' I never wanted to hear that.

"I just knew that I had to do everything within my power to see to it that every kid learned to the level of capacity that they had. It was my responsibility."

Only then can Washington pry loose from the pull of Pine Bluff's children, echoing from the page across the room. They are the why of becoming mayor -- the first Black female to do so in the city's history to boot -- to connect the dots for all. In her view, complex issues belie the fundamental goals everyone holds: achieving a future articulated in faith, shored by brotherhood, fueled by optimism.

"We know the heart and soul of any community is the education system. So, we have to improve education in our area," she says. "We know crime drives people in or it drives people out. So, we have to get a handle on crime. I think we have a vision and we are tenacious about moving forward in all of those areas.

"Anybody in Pine Bluff who knows me, they know I'm about the business and they know I'm going to roll my sleeves up and go to work at whatever I engage myself in. I think that's indicative of Pine Bluff, too."

GETHSEMANE

Long before she became the best-known woman in one of the most culturally and historically significant cities in Arkansas, Shirley Ruth Moorehead was part of a farm family on the Arkansas Delta, the second of Willie and Blanchie Moorehead's seven children. Her hometown, Gethsemane, was both place and password, separating those who came from and those just passing through.

"Everybody called it Guess-a-main because they didn't know how to pronounce that Biblical term, Gethsemane," Washington explains. "We went to Guess-a-main Missionary Baptist Church, we went to Guess-a-main Elementary School, but then sat in Sunday School class or at home reading the Bible and read about the Garden of Gethsemane. So, one day my sister and I were reading the Bible and we said, 'We don't live in Guess-a-main, we live in Gethsemane.'

"When I was in college a guy said, 'Where are you from, young lady?' And I said, 'I'm from Gethsemane.' He said, 'Ah, don't try to be proper. C'mon, it's Guess-a-main.' I never shall forget that."

The Moorehead household stressed four cornerstones above all else -- family, faith, hard work and education -- one often buttressing the other. Washington, while above-average, wasn't a valedictory student, but she possessed sterling organizational and leadership qualities apparent even early in life.

"My mother realized I had that gift of working with kids," she says. "That was one thing she always tried to see in us, what your gift was. What was your anointing? She saw I could manage kids and I could manage the house at the same time. From the time I was about fourth grade, maybe, I became the babysitter and I enjoyed it."

Teaching was not her first professional goal; she started out wanting to be a nurse until a sibling's bicycle accident had her recoiling at the sight of blood. She then thought of being a secretary, but was pragmatic enough to realize she'd never seen one who looked like her.

"My dad had sisters and a sister-in-law and they were all elementary school teachers," she says. "Whenever they came home to my grandfather's house and would visit us, I spent a lot of time with them. I talked to them about what they did in their classrooms, with their kids. I guess that further instilled that seed to work with kids as my life career."

Washington graduated from Wabbaseka High School in 1966 and, at age 17, dove headlong into marriage and parenthood alongside Frank Washington, whom she'd known since elementary school. The couple became each other's lifelong mooring point in business, public service and raising three children.

"Frank and I work very well together because we are two people who need to be in a 12-step program," she says with a chuckle. "We're called workaholics."

PINE BLUFF

Washington graduated in three and a half years from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N), now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Despite being midterm, she got a call from the Wabbaseka superintendent looking for a fill-in for the rest of the semester. Six years later, Washington moved to Pine Bluff where she'd leverage an innate ability to connect with youngsters and draw the best out of them. The secret, she says, was in the showing up.

"The only thing I wanted to hear about my kids from previous teachers was what their attendance record looked like," she says. "I knew I could not impact their lives if they were not there. I wanted to make sure they left that classroom every day hanging, wondering what will tomorrow bring? I have to be here tomorrow.

"I made sure they were happy and they were anticipating the next day when they walked out of that room. I basically would stand at the door every evening when they were going out to say, 'Have a good night. See you in the morning.' You just have to get them back tomorrow morning."

Washington's kids always scored off the charts in their studies, including children who had been written off by colleague teachers. Even today, tears run down her cheeks remembering students labeled incorrigible, kids who'd blossom under someone who took the time and cared.

"It made me stay away from the teachers' lounge," she said. "And it wasn't that I didn't like teachers, it was I saw so many teachers who genuinely didn't care about the kids and that hurt. I shunned the teachers' lounge like you wouldn't believe. I mean, it was like poison."

Eventually, administrative roles beckoned and Washington made the leap to principal, proving as adept at getting the best out of educators as she was out of students.

"I thought I was going to really miss that classroom and I did," she said. "But at the same time, it was about making a powerful impact for every kid in the school, not just for those 25 you had in your classroom. That was always my goal when I became a principal.

"It's a challenge, but it's one that broadens your horizon and there is never a dull moment. I hated leaving the classroom, but once I got to be principal, I really enjoyed every day of it."

CASINO GAMBLING

In 2017, in this very conference room, Mayor Shirley Washington took a meeting with some out-of-town businessmen seeking to share a proposition. She'd been on the job all of three months and had no idea what business the men were in.

"He said, 'Gaming,'" she said. "I moved that chair back and I said, 'I'm sorry. We can end this conversation right now. I cannot bring gambling into this community.' All I could see was gambling being the demise of the poor and uneducated in this city."

In what might be the only time she'd meet her stubborn match, John Berry, representing the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma, kept his verbal foot in the door and the mayor in her seat. He laid out how a tribal casino could reinvent Pine Bluff, offering jobs, tax revenue and other community investment. Even at the end, and Washington's answer still no, he left on the table an invitation to tour the tribe's Upstream property in Joplin, Mo., and the challenge to keep an open mind.

Steadfast though she was that gambling wasn't the answer, Washington couldn't deny the city was sorely in need of something bold. In a scant 100 years, Pine Bluff has gone from a center of Arkansas commerce, culture and wealth to a place synonymous with crime, drugs and decay, driving thousands of residents elsewhere in search of a better life. She gathered a handful of close confidants and scheduled a tour of Joplin.

"I had been to a lot of casinos, but I had never had the kind of experience I had at Downstream," she said. "They let me have run of the place. I talked to parents as they came in and picked their kids up from the on-site daycare. I talked to maids in the hotel. I talked to people working the casino floor. I talked to people who were there from Day One. Why have you been here all this time? 'Because they take care of us. We have a 401(k). Never had that before. I can provide for my family like I wasn't able to do prior to taking a job here.'

"I just had a different perspective of what they were bringing into our community after that. I left there with a vision."

Back home, Washington's vision suffered the same scorn and derision she showed the initial pitch. The effort would need nothing short of a state constitutional amendment, plus clear and as yet unwritten licensing process, to come to fruition.

Billie Dorn, who has been friends with Washington since childhood, had no doubt her friend would find a way to pull off this greatest of challenges.

"I always send her texts and tell her how great she is doing. I always go down there and tell her how great she's doing," she says. "I mean, you just feel amazed that a person from a little, small community -- not a town, a community -- would advance this far. I tell her all the time that I wish your parents were alive to see this. Everybody who knows her is pretty much amazed at what she has accomplished in this life and I am, too, to see this little, bitty person become a giant."

STRATEGIC THINKER

Outside of her circle, the most stifling element was the community's self-doubt. Pine Bluffians had seen audacious projects foment in the mayor's office before, ideas half this ambitious that sunk in the partisan mire. But what they hadn't seen was Washington's mettle which, brought to the task, slowly, steadily turned skeptics into prophets.

"I can honestly say that Mayor Washington is a very strategic thinker," said Tommy May, head of the Simmons First Foundation. "She prioritizes the opportunities and challenges, then she selects those that will most impact our city and citizens.

"Mayor Washington is not afraid to take on a challenge nor is she driven by potential controversy of her decision. Every decision is based on answers to the following: Is it the right thing to do? Is it good for our city and its citizens? What are any greater needs that are affordable? She works tirelessly and always finds time to be our best cheerleader."

Just three short years later, Washington walked into Saracen Casino's grand opening a conquering visionary.

"The overall economic impact of bringing that facility here has meant more than anything else," she says. "It brought jobs we needed so badly. I've talked to people who work there who have bank accounts for the first time in their lives. That means a lot.

"I'm still praying people will use it for entertainment and not try to go there and get rich. There's nothing wrong with entertainment, right? I go to a casino in Las Vegas to have a little fun, I just don't let that casino experience change me."

The success of Saracen is more than just thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue, important though these are. It's also a shining retort to anyone who doubts the other things on the mayor's agenda, be it building a new aquatics center (accomplished) renovating streetscapes (done) and buildings in the neglected downtown (ongoing) or anything else she puts her mind toward.

"By the time she got into office, there were some things going on," said Irene Holcomb, longtime Pine Bluff City Council member. "However, she was able to finish those projects. She's been able to forge ahead with what was started because she worked from the grassroots. I always said, you work from the grassroots to the country club, being able to communicate with people on all socioeconomic levels. Being able to do that, some of these projects are being finished."

"The streetscape project had been on the books for many years, through many mayors. I just said if we're going to do it, let's do it. Let's push and make it happen," Washington says. "We're about to finish up Phase One, going into Phase Two. We've cleared and purchased all of between Pine and Walnut and between Third and Fourth and we're going to put housing in there. It will be a mix of market-rate and affordable housing.

"And I want to say this: I see the drugs destroying a lot of our young people. Somehow, we've got to change that by embracing them at a young age, directing their mindset into positive things. We want them to use that aquatic center, these baseball and soccer fields and everything else we have to keep them moving in a constructive, positive direction. We have to embrace them and help them to believe in themselves."

Talk of the next generation again hits close to home. Washington takes one final glance at the challenges issued by the schoolkids, as if drawing second breath from it.

"I try to be, to the best of my ability, straightforward and honest," she says in a tone equally assertive and promissory. "My work ethic, people see that I'm serious about the business because I'm not asking anybody to do anything that I wouldn't do myself. You have to be driven; I am going to work equally as hard as I expect anybody else to work."

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