Two weeks ago, a friend alerted Covington attorney Annie Spell to a chat room on the Web site nola.com, which is associated with The Times-Picayune. A thread with the all-caps subject line BOYCOTT ANNIE SPELL started on May 10 with this statement: 'What on Earth is the Northshore coming to? What a sneaky move by the NAACP. What ever happened to the NAAWP?'
'It took my breath away,' Spell says. 'They had a big conversation about me, though I don't really understand how you can boycott me.'
NAAWP stands for the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a white supremacist group founded by David Duke. Subsequent posts advocated racial separatism and worried about white 'extinction' in the area. Others in the chat room made pleas for racial harmony.
Spell also had heard that the posts contained a threat against her. Last month, Spell, 40, became the second white female ever to serve as president of a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branch when the Greater Covington branch re-established itself. The site deleted a vast majority of the forum's posts about Spell because of the offensive language. Copies obtained by Gambit Weekly did not reveal any direct threat to Spell, but some posts seemed to make reference to such threats.
'I do not recall a specific threat,' says nola.com editor Jon Donley. 'There were some inappropriate comments about Spell being a white NAACP leader.'
Donley says nola.com has an open posting policy for its chat rooms. An outsourced company headquartered in New Jersey is responsible for removing offensive posts -- though in this case Donley, a Mandeville resident, deleted several posts himself when he visited the chat room. 'We live in an area that historically had a lot of racism, so I guess I see it a lot,' Donley says. 'And my reaction is to hit the delete button.'
For Spell, the new evidence of old attitudes inspires her further in her leadership with the NAACP. 'This collection of white separatists -- obviously they're ignorant people,' Spell says. 'They make me glad I'm president. This is what our organization has to fight.'
IN A WAY, IT SEEMS THAT ANNIE SPELL was born to fight for racial equality. Spell's grandfather, Dr. W. S. Harrell, was responsible for integrating the delivery room in the Bogalusa hospital just before her birth in April 1965. Raised in Bogalusa, Spell graduated from Vanderbilt University and earned a law degree from Loyola University. With her husband, attorney Buddy Spell, she is well known among local activists for her work for progressive causes. Among other efforts, they organized the Jazz Funeral for Democracy held in New Orleans during George W. Bush's inauguration ceremony this year.
The Spells are a team. 'It's a two-for-one deal; you get me, you also get Buddy,' Annie Spell says. The couple is sitting at a table inside St. John's Coffeehouse in Covington -- their suggested spot for an interview -- to discuss her work in the NAACP. Their history in civil rights issues includes work with their Franklinton-based law firm Spell & Spell, which specializes in civil rights issues. 'Fifty percent of my cases are civil rights cases because they involve black defendants in a racist system,' Buddy Spell says.
In one landmark case, they brought a lawsuit on behalf of a wheelchair-bound student suffering from cerebral palsy at Bogalusa High School. A dumbwaiter transported the student between the school's first and second floors, and eventually Case v. Bogalusa City School System resulted in that school system, and by consequence others across the state, being found liable for not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice aided Spell & Spell in the case, which Annie Spell says indicates a larger problem in the local mindset. 'Rather than just comply with the law and fix the problem, they fought it,' she says.
During last year's presidential campaign, Spell's politics became even more personal. She was serving as leader for her 6-year-old daughter Sarah Jane's Girl Scout troop, which met at Christ Episcopal School in Covington. When she also began actively campaigning for Sen. John Kerry, several parents withdrew their daughters from the troop. The troop eventually disbanded. 'Some of the women were worried that my daughter might say something to one of their girls about women staying at home and not working or something about John Kerry making a good president,' Annie Spell says.
'That's the type of backlash we're able to see,' says Buddy Spell, adding that their law firm receives death threats. 'We know that there's a huge amount of backlash we're unable to see.'
Work on the Kerry campaign also led Annie Spell into the NAACP. A collection of Northshore Kerry campaigners formed an informal alliance last fall, and Spell joined a group that picketed meetings of the St. Tammany Parish Council, which had passed a resolution urging residents to boycott CBS News following Dan Rather's flawed investigation into the president's National Guard service. The picketing soon led to a group dubbed The Patriots Act meeting every Wednesday evening for dinner. Through this group Spell met Bonnie Andrus, an activist new to the Northshore but already connected to several African-American activists by working on the failed U.S. Senate bid by state Rep. Arthur Morrell (D-New Orleans).
Andrus says the lack of institutional support for Morrell, the only black in the race, made her realize the need for an area NAACP chapter. She worked with Hattie Brown, a well-known African-American community leader on the Northshore, to hold exploratory meetings to restore Covington's NAACP chapter. Andrus was recruiting potential members for the new NAACP branch when she passed a membership form to Spell at a Kerry campaign event. 'I size people up pretty quickly, and I just knew instantly that I had a gem in Annie,' Andrus says.
Impressed by Spell's passion and leadership potential, Andrus sent her an email asking Spell if she'd consider a nomination to become the president of the NAACP branch. The group had achieved a membership roll of more than 50 people, enough to qualify for a branch organization as dictated by national NAACP bylaws.
'I told her I would be honored and flattered,' Spell recalls.
The election for the Greater Covington NAACP branch president would be determined by secret ballot. Andrus formally nominated Spell, who faced candidate Rev. Donald Burris, a vice president in the Covington NAACP before it folded in 1999.
'People before the election kept asking me [who I was voting for] ... never thinking it possible I would vote for Annie,' says Robert Celestine, an African American and now the branch's vice-president. 'I told them Annie. They acted shocked. 'Why?' they kept asking me. I said, 'Because she's got everything going for her. She has the qualifications; she's well-spoken and well-educated. She's presidential material.'
A group of 20, including four whites, cast ballots. Andrus says Spell won by a single vote.
IN 1909, BLACKS AND WHITES JOINED together to form the NAACP. Since then, Southern white women have historically played important roles in the organization. Among the NAACP's supporters in the early 20th century was Alabama's Helen Keller.
In 2000, Leigh Touchton of Valdosta, Ga., became the first white female elected NAACP branch president in the country. Elected to the position in 2000 (like Spell, taking over at a dormant existing chapter), Touchton has since lost her job as a biology professor at Valdosta State University as a result of her work on a NAACP-led campaign for better wages for non-faculty employees at the university.
Touchton faced ashamed family members and death threats, but she's proud of joining the effort to remove the Confederate emblem from the Georgia state flag. In Valdosta, she's called attention to police brutality cases and helped organize the push to remove the names of slave owners and segregationists from public parks in black neighborhoods.
'If I had any advice [for Spell], it would be to focus on specific, local issues,' Touchton says.
Now in her second month as president, Spell appears to be doing just that. Covington will be holding its first-ever celebration of Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery. She also is working to improve black voter registration in St. Tammany Parish and to increase public awareness of the need to serve on juries.
'That's a big issue in this parish,' says Celestine. 'It's so conservative here. A black man doesn't even have to be guilty to go to jail up here. The white jury will look at him, his tattoo, his earring, and think he's guilty.'
Celestine says that the influx of new residents on the Northshore has improved the climate, but racism is still rampant. 'Superficially, it's good,' Celestine says. 'But you dig below that, down to the nitty-gritty, well, it ain't so good.'
'You have discrimination against color, but also against beliefs,' Annie Spell says. 'I think that in St. Tammany, people have been lulled into this mindset -- it's a great world we have around us, but we're really afraid of anything different. And any time someone questions the status quo, rather than discussing it, people just attack the different idea.'
The Greater Covington NAACP branch now has 62 members, and has established a P.O. box, a checking account and four standing committees. 'Our organization is diverse in our skin color, our economic and educational background,' Spell says. 'Every meeting I go to, I've learned something. Everybody there has something to offer.
"We want to increase voter rolls, educate the community about the importance of jury, and memorialize and promote the Civil Rights history of St. Tammany," Spell says. "With this group, we can be a presence at meetings of the parish council, the city council, the school board. We're going to make some changes that just haven't been possible up until this point."
- Donn Young
- For Annie Spell, attacks against her only inspire her further in her leadership with the NAACP. 'This collection of white separatists -- obviously they're ignorant people,' Spell says. 'They make me glad I'm president. This is what our organization has to fight.'