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To her neighbors in Little Rock, Annie Abrams is a grand hero, a pillar of the community and a living legacy for a generation who does not know the struggle of those who came before them. “Mother Abrams,” as her community often calls her, is rarely talked about in the stories of other civil rights pioneers, but she is an ordinary woman who has built an extraordinary legacy with her involvement in civil rights for more than 50 years.
Annie Mabel McDaniel Abrams was born in Arkadelphia in the early 1930s. Her father died when she was 18 months old, so her grandfather stepped in to help her mother raise her. She attended Peake Elementary, a segregated school in a small South Arkansas town. At 13, her mother sent her to Little Rock to live with an aunt and continue her education. Abrams graduated from Dunbar High School in 1950 and attended Dunbar Junior College to study teacher education.
Photo used with permission from The History Makers.
While a prestigious school in Massachusetts offered her a scholarship, her financial status did not allow her to move. So, after she received her teaching certificate, Abrams began her teaching career in Marianna in a three-room, segregated school. In 1956, she accepted a position with the Arkansas Teachers Association, an activist group seeing equality for black teachers. Abrams also completed a degree in special education at Philander Smith College.
After moving back to Little Rock, Abrams reconnected with her Dunbar community and was a behind-the-scenes friend and consultant to the Little Rock Nine. Abrams assisted Daisy Bates and other advocates through the desegregation crisis. She later sent all four of her children to Central High School and became the first Black PTA president.
Fourteen of her descendants, including seven children and three great-grandchildren, have attended the school she worked to desegregate.
In 1986, Mother Abrams’ living room became the planning site of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade for the City of Little Rock after the first national observance. She also began a campaign to rename High Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, with final success and dedication in 1992.
Service is the rent you pay to live on this earth.”
Over time, Abrams’ home, porch, and front yard have been a safe gathering place for advocates in the black community: a museum of sorts. Younger generations know they can come to this site for comfort, experience both warning and encouragement, and use it as a safe place to discuss challenging topics. Abrams’ son, Orville, notes the home’s significance.
When you come home and the governor is sitting on the porch talking to your mom, you realize she knows people.”
It’s more like people know her and seek her wise counsel, no matter their background or political views.
Photo used with permission from Arkansas Parks, Heritage and Tourism
In 2020, following the death of George Floyd, the North Central University president challenged other Christian college presidents to do something to inspire young and emerging black leaders. Among other measures, Ouachita Baptist University’s President, Dr. Ben Sells, established the Annie Abrams Living Legacy Award. With a childhood connection to the Arkadelphia community and her intentional role as an educational advocate for African American students, Sells wanted the legacy built for Ouachita students to bear her name.
I wasn’t a millionaire, but I gave away love in the millions.”
The annual scholarship honors “students involved in Ouachita’s Multicultural Organization Reaching Equality who have demonstrated leadership, exemplified the university’s mission and shown promise to influence the world positively.”
“Abrams’ work acts as a great example of the kind of recipient for such an award,” the organization’s student leaders wrote. “Two words that best describe her are love and action: two of the most important attributes of a civil rights activist and world-changing leader.”
Photo used with permission from The History Makers.
Abrams remains actively involved in many community organizations like the Fair Housing Commission, the Little Rock Central High 50th Anniversary Commission, Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission. In 2010, she was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. Philander Smith College, her alma mater, also awarded her an honorary doctorate and community service award. The MLK Jr. commission awarded her the Brooks Hays Award for Civil Rights Champions and the Making of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Award, presented by Coretta Scott King. She earned this award for her pivotal role in helping make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a national holiday.
But a great surprise came last February when “Good Morning America,” along with community leaders, showed up on her front porch to surprise her with an award and a donation to the scholarship bearing her name.
Certainly, the hearts of all who hear her story and carry her legacy bear her imprint wherever they go.
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