First reported 4/19/10
Her arresting smile rivals the glowing blue highlights adorning her hair. Tuesday is Annie Mae Abrams’ 95th birthday and her spirit is still beaming.
Abrams was anxious to discuss her “history” with the Austin Weekly last week in the front room of her Austin home.
“I hope you do something good with my history,” she jokingly warned, all the while sporting a grin and adjusting her position in her wheel chair in preparation for the interview.
Meanwhile, Annie Mae’s daughter, Adair Abrams, and her niece, Edrissa King, along with her granddaughter sat in the adjacent living room. They periodically chimed in to coach her memory along.
“Tell him where you go during the week, mom,” Adair said, referring to Chicago REACH, an alternative care program for seniors.
“Where do you go to church, grandma?” King asked, referring to Performing Christ Ministry.
Despite a few voids in her memory, Annie Mae’s recollection of the last century is fluent, helped along by her family who validated most of what the matriarch said. Originally from Montgomery , Ala. , she was born Annie Mae Pruitt. She moved north with her father, stepmother and five siblings at the age of three. Her dad, Payton Pruitt, was a cotton picker who decided to move his fledgling family to Chicago after Annie Mae’s mother died.
The increasing use of farm machinery on plantations that took away jobs also necessitated their relocation.
In Chicago, he found work as a Pullman train operator. Annie Mae also recalled her father taking great pride in the fact that none of his children were ever subjected to backbreaking plantation work.
“He made sure none of his children had to pick cotton,” King said, turning her head around from an easy chair that faced the opposite side of the room-her grandmother nodded in affirmation.
Annie Mae spent much of her early years on the South Side. She attended Hyde Park Academy High School in the early 1930s-Annie Mae says she was among the first black students to graduate at the top of the class. Hyde Park Academy did not return phone calls to confirm this.
“There was only about 20 of us at the time in Hyde Park [high school],” Annie Mae said.
By World War II, Annie Mae, like many other women around the country, went to work, at first in a factory for Caterpillar where parts for U.S. Army tanks were manufactured. She then briefly worked for Yellow Pages stacking phone books on the docks before they were loaded onto delivery trucks.
“I didn’t like that job, I told them I had to stop-it was too much lifting,” she recalled. “I was always active in something.”
Right around this time, Annie Mae found her two lasting loves: her late husband Jake Abrams, who passed in 1974-and nursing.
She met Jake through his niece; the two were instantly smitten with one another. They married in 1943 and had four children. Jake was a jazz pianist and, according to Annie Mae, nothing short of amazing.
“He was a wonderful, talented and quiet man,” she said.
By the 1950s,’ Jake was fighting in the Korean War and Annie Mae had begun work as a nurse. She says she was the first African-American chief nurse at the University of Illinois Research and Education Hospital (now the UIC Medical Center ).
“I was very happy there,” she said, smiling.
The UIC records department verified Annie Mae’s employment but was unable to locate any documentation confirming her status as the first black head nurse.
“The records are on dusty index cards in a basement-they don’t necessarily keep records of race,” said Sonya Booth, who works in UIC’s press office.
Whether or not she was the first black valedictorian at Hyde Park High or head nurse at U of I Hospital, Annie Mae has lived a rich life, and she’s still going.
Her weekdays consist of attending REACH programs, and she’s oftentimes the first to arrive at Performing Christ Ministry for Sunday services.
“I’ve had a real good life- I still am,” she said.