Little Rock City Director Erma Hendrix, who represented the city's downtown core for more than a decade and was known as an unflinching voice for Ward 1, died Wednesday at the age of 91.
In a statement released Thursday morning, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said Hendrix passed away peacefully at her home Wednesday evening.
"I will always remember and be thankful for Director Hendrix's passion for equity and justice and her love for serving the residents of Ward One for fifteen years," Scott said.
Describing Hendrix as "a giant of a lady and one of our city's pillars," Scott likened her to a grandmother. He recalled her saying, "I'm not here for myself. I'm here for the people."
The city's flag will be flown at half-staff in Hendrix's honor, Scott said.
"I'll miss our talks and the sage advice she always offered," he said.
In the same news release, City Manager Bruce Moore said he was a young intern when he met Hendrix. "Over the years, I have admired her passion and dedication in representing the residents of Ward 1," he said. "Her voice will truly be missed."
Hendrix's first stint representing Ward 1 on the city board was from November 1993 to December 1994. She joined the board again after winning election to a four-year term in 2006, and went on to win re-election three more times, most recently in 2018.
Born in 1930, Hendrix attended Little Rock public schools.
According to her city biography, she earned a bachelor's degree from Arkansas Baptist College and a master's degree in urban planning and development from Saint Louis University, with additional graduate work at Ouachita Baptist University.
Hendrix held positions as a psychiatric nurse at Fort Roots Veterans Hospital and as administrator of the Metropolitan Housing Alliance's anti-poverty program, according to the city.
Additionally, she worked as a real estate broker. According to a 2010 newspaper report, Hendrix was retired by that time but still maintained her real estate license.
In interviews Thursday, officials described Hendrix as an outspoken advocate for her ward, which encompassed the downtown hub, communities south of Interstate 630 and the city's easternmost edge along the Arkansas River.
"Her ward was important to her, and she wanted to make sure that to me as mayor -- as well as to the city council and the community -- that she was heard representing that ward," said former Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey, who served from 1993 to December 2006.
Sometimes it was a question of equity, Dailey said. Hendrix wanted to ensure her ward was receiving part of the benefit when the city was putting money into various other parts of the community, he said.
To that degree, he said, "she was feisty and spunky and passionate and believed strongly in what she was doing to help her part of town, which in general is one that may have struggled a little more through the years."
At-large City Director Joan Adcock, the longest-serving member of the city board, described Hendrix as "a grand lady."
"She was a lady from the old school, just as I am," she said. "She loved her community. She would tell you in a minute her opinion. I think that's what made her so special. She loved her community so much, she was willing to speak up for the needs of the community and the whole city."
Adcock said she knew the Ward 1 representative for about 20 years. Hendrix "always had an opinion and was willing to put the people first," Adcock said. "It's a loss for the city."
Ward 6 City Director Doris Wright said Hendrix "was a strong woman, a strong Black woman."
Wright said Hendrix always took care of the people in Ward 1 and stood up for racial equality at all times, adding she never wavered in the 30 years she had known her.
"Whether we agreed or not, I respected her longevity and wisdom," Wright said. "There were things she knew that I had no idea about."
Hendrix initially joined the city board in the wake of the 1993 voter-approved reorganization of city government that resulted in the citywide election of the mayor as well as representatives elected by particular wards.
She was elected to represent Ward 1 in November 1993. The prior year, Hendrix had mounted an unsuccessful campaign as a Republican for a seat in the state House of Representatives.
Hendrix was unseated in a 1994 city election that pitted her against a sitting at-large board member because of ward restructuring, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported at the time.
In the fall of 1996, she withdrew as the Republican nominee for the same House district seat and instead filed to run for an at-large seat on the city board. She lost the race to Dean Kumpuris, who remains on the board.
Ten years later, voters returned Hendrix to the Ward 1 seat.
Hendrix faced opposition from some in the community during her yearslong tenure in city government, but efforts to oust her failed.
An attempt in 2007-08 to secure the signatures for a special election fell short.
When the petition drive kicked off, voters were asked to recall Hendrix because of what it described as "disruptive behavior" and her failure to work for the ward's benefit, the Democrat-Gazette reported.
"It's totally insane," Hendrix remarked at the time, saying she had not seen the petition and had no comment.
For her part, Hendrix reportedly attributed the recall attempt to past disputes related to the opposition group's co-chair and a downtown neighborhood association, as well as racial tension.
Never one to hold her tongue, Hendrix clashed with her fellow city officials on occasion.
At a board meeting in 2014, Hendrix said dilapidated houses in Black communities languished on the city's list for condemnation. Blighted properties in wealthier wards were demolished quickly, she said.
Moore, the city manager, bristled at the accusation, according to a newspaper report.
"To accuse me and my staff of discriminating, I'm not tolerating that," he said. "We try very hard to take these houses down as quickly as we can," adding that the city had to contend with legal issues.
In 2017, Hendrix pursued without success an ordinance to have ward representation on most city boards and commissions.
The following year, she suggested the board put the question to voters on whether to dismantle the board's current structure, with its 10 members divided between three at-large positions and seven ward-specific seats.
Hendrix had long favored the idea of city board members hailing from 10 different wards. She argued that the at-large seats -- all held by white officials at the time -- served to cancel out the votes of the board's Black members, the Democrat-Gazette reported.
"It's not fair representation," she said in 2010. "There's no balance."
The effort never came to fruition, though she raised the idea as recently as last year.
Unlike many others, Hendrix never sought recognition for her work and accomplishments, according to City Director Ken Richardson, who represents Ward 2.
He suggested her style and way of speaking could be attributed to generational differences and Hendrix's own personal experiences in an era when people were confronting police dogs and fire hoses as they fought for the right to vote.
In an interview, Richardson said Hendrix often "said what needed to be said, regardless of how she said it."
It's unclear when the city board might act to appoint an individual to Hendrix's seat.
Arkansas law says a vacancy on the board of directors of a municipal government must be filled by majority vote of the board, with the appointee to serve out the remainder of the unexpired term. The Ward 1 appointee would be eligible to run for a full term in 2022.
The decision regarding Hendrix's replacement, not to mention the vote on a long-term successor, are likely to be contested.
The Ward 1 seat attracted significant interest in 2018, when eight challengers vied to unseat Hendrix, but she prevailed with roughly 1,500 more votes than the next-closest opponent.
At-large City Director Antwan Phillips said people knew Hendrix was outspoken, but sitting next to her at meetings allowed him to learn how funny she was.
There would be little moments before or after meetings when she would make a joke or point something out, and they would laugh, Phillips said.
When officials go to the next meeting, "she's not going to be there," he said. "And that's going to be tough for me, and probably tougher for other people on the board who've been with her longer."
Information for this article was contributed by Brianna Kwasnik of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.