Annie Spell is white.
The diminutive, fair-skinned blonde would be hard-pressed to argue otherwise — nor would she try to.
Despite her lack of African ancestry, however, Spell not so long ago was the face of Covington’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
And in that, she shares something of a bond with Rachel Dolezal, the white Spokane, Washington, woman who until recently was head of that city’s NAACP chapter.
Dolezal stepped down last week after it emerged that she had been claiming to be black — a story that has captivated a race-obsessed nation.
Spell isn’t sure what to make of the Dolezal story.
“Uh, wow,” she said of her reaction. “I feel kind of conflicted,” she added.
“I don’t really know yet how I feel about it,” she said. “And I don’t think my knowing is going to change anything.”
It’s unusual but not unprecedented for white people to have leadership positions in the NAACP, even if the organization’s title includes the phrase “colored people,” said Raphael Cassimere, a former history professor at the University of New Orleans, veteran civil rights leader and longtime member of the organization.
“When I first joined the NAACP in 1960, both the national president and treasurer were white,” Cassimere said. White leadership was not restricted to the national level, either. Places such as New England, where there were fewer African-Americans, often had white chapter presidents, he said.
Given that black ancestry is not a prerequisite for membership or even leadership in the NAACP, for many observers the puzzle in the Dolezal story is why she lied about her race. But for Spell, the question that matters is how effective Dolezal was in her role as chapter president.
“If she was doing good, then good,” she said. “Was she making life better for people as president?”
Spell’s insistence that the real story is what Dozelal was doing to help the local chapter of the civil rights organization — rather than what was going on inside her mind — can be traced to her own activism, and the role she has played in Covington.
Spell’s story is not that unusual. She was born in the mid-1960s, a time of high racial tensions in Bogalusa, where her father was a well-off lawyer.
Like many affluent white people at that time, Spell’s parents had a black helper around the house, a woman who helped raise Annie and her two siblings. They called her Ida, though they believe her real name was Carrie Ann. Ida had no birth certificate — her birth was recorded with a simple line in an old family Bible.
“Ida raised me,” Spell said, recalling when Ida would take her and her siblings into Bogalusa’s housing projects to play in the pools there. Ida died just before Hurricane Katrina, something Spell still can’t recount without tears.
Spell traces her interest in equality to that point, and it informed her early activism in Bogalusa. But after she met and married fellow attorney Buddy Spell, they moved in the early 2000s to Covington, where they both became enmeshed in liberal causes, especially protesting the Iraq invasion in 2003.
The pair were so committed that they traveled to Crawford, Texas, and joined renowned war protester Cindy Sheehan outside then-President George W. Bush’s ranch.
In St. Tammany, Spell had joined a Democratic women’s group and gotten involved in John Kerry’s losing presidential campaign in 2004. At one meeting, Spell was approached by another white woman who asked if she might be interested in joining the NAACP. There was no chapter in Covington at that point, and a group of people were trying to collect enough members to start a chapter.
Spell said sure and signed up herself, her husband and the couple’s young daughter. Then the woman suggested that Spell run for president of the new chapter.
At the first meeting, the vote was close — those there can’t remember how close — but Spell defeated a black opponent and took over a nascent chapter in the heart of a parish known for its staunchly conservative politics. She served a two-year term, from 2005 to 2007.
Spell is not a commanding physical presence — but when the situation called for it, she didn’t back down. It was Spell, flanked by regional and state NAACP leaders, who stood behind a lectern in 2006 and called for St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain to resign after he disparaged people with dreadlocks and “chee-wee hairstyles.”
Spell may have appeared fearless that day, but the reality was different. Despite her view that what should matter is the work a chapter president does, not the color of her skin, she was quite self-conscious about being the white face of a black organization calling for the resignation of a popular sheriff.
“I was scared to death at the press conference,” she said. “Scared to say the wrong thing, scared of something happening.” But she went through with it.
She called for Strain’s resignation again after there was an allegation of discriminatory hiring practices by the Sheriff’s Office.
Spell was exactly what the chapter needed at the time, said Robert Celestine, who sits on the board of the state NAACP and was vice president of the Covington chapter when Spell was president.
“She started off with big banquets to raise money,” he said. “She did a whole lot of stuff.”
Spell helped deal with problems such as blight in Covington’s largely black West 30s neighborhood and called for equitable distribution of funds after Katrina. She brought utility company representatives in to explain what appeared to many people to be excessively high power bills after the storm.
“She was extremely active,” Celestine said.
Was it weird for her being a white woman leading a local chapter of the NAACP?
“I never felt unwelcome,” Spell said.
She recounted a time when she went to give a speech at a meeting in another parish, and when she went up to the dais, everybody stopped talking. But she laughed and said once they realized who she was, things were fine.
It wasn’t all fun, however. At least once, in response to threats from what Spell called “cowards,” she and her daughter went to stay at a hotel. The experience only served to stiffen her resolve.
“They wouldn’t say it to my face,” she said of those who sent her letters, upset because she was a white proponent for black people’s civil rights.
It was that resolve, actually, that led to her leaving the NAACP after her term was up in 2007.
One of the issues she had been feuding with the city over was the renovation of a pool at Covington’s Peter Atkins Park in the West 30s. City officials said the pool would be too expensive to fix and that they were going to bus neighborhood kids to the YMCA instead.
But that wasn’t good enough for Spell. As soon as her term ended, she launched a campaign for the City Council.
Just after she qualified, “the pool got fixed,” she said with a laugh. She finished third out of five candidates for the spot, gathering 10 percent of the vote.
Issues like the pool are why Spell got into the NAACP in the first place, and it’s what she wants to know about Spokane and Dolezal.
“It’s not really a black-white issue,” she said. “What can we do to help Spokane fix the problems they were working on?”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.