Madame President

How a Citronelle woman’s gumption and grit made her a trailblazer of her time.

In the early 20th century, most women had little autonomy and few job prospects. My grandmother, however, went from farm girl to bank president and dodged a bullet to get there.

Audrey May Rowell was her name (yes, I am named for her). Born in 1903 on a farm a few miles outside of Citronelle, she was the eldest of Ada and Andrew Joseph Rowell’s four children. It was Ada, a school teacher, who instilled in Audrey and her two sisters a strong work ethic, a love of education and the idea that a woman did not have to be resigned to her station in life.

Just after her 16th birthday, Audrey graduated from Citronelle High School. She went to Mobile to spend the summer with relatives while she obtained her teaching certificate. That fall, certificate in hand, she found herself at a school in Vinegar Bend, about 15 miles north of Citronelle. She discovered pretty darn quick that she didn’t like teaching at all, and she felt like she’d never get to do the things she wanted to if she stayed in that profession.

That’s why the very next summer, she went back to Mobile to stay with her uncle and his family and attend the Twentieth Century Business School. While she was away at school, her mother talked with Claude Hurt, the president of the Citronelle State Bank, to see if Audrey could help him and his wife, Linnie, out at the bank. After all, Ada said, they were the only two employees. The Hurts agreed to hire Audrey, and she began working with them in about 1920. She was 17 years old.

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Audrey was a hard worker, and the Hurts were kind people who, with no children of their own, grew to think of her as their daughter. She quickly learned the business and gradually, the Hurts gave her more responsibility. They also gave her the option to buy stock in the bank, which she did every time she had a little money saved up.

Fast forward to 1928. It’s a Saturday in July. There’s a big wool sale being held on the platform at the Citronelle train depot, right across the street from the bank. Audrey is wearing a new dress. Everyone is in town for market day, so you must look your best.

Mrs. Hurt is in California visiting her sister, so only Mr. Hurt and Audrey are working in the bank that day. It’s busy in town and in the bank. Audrey and Mr. Hurt are in the front of the bank at the teller windows.

Suddenly, two men barge into the bank, pointing pistols at them and demanding cash. Audrey is frozen in fear. Mr. Hurt, who had once been a policeman, lunges for the gun he kept hidden behind the counter. When he moves, the younger robber shoots. The bullet whizzes past Audrey and hits Mr. Hurt.

The two robbers argue about the shooting. The ringleader and older of the two, already antsy and agitated, is furious that the younger man has shot Mr. Hurt. They run from the bank without any money. On the street, the older man shoots the younger, killing him instantly. The ringleader runs away, followed by a much younger boy posted as a lookout, and they escape by car. Inside, Audrey tends to Mr. Hurt. Her new dress is soaked in his blood.

There was no organized police force in Citronelle at the time, so the men of the town gather a posse together. The robbers have headed west toward Earlville to cross the Escatawpa River to go to Mississippi, but the bridge is washed out. They double back, trying to cross on the Beverly Jeffries Highway, but that bridge is flooded, too. That’s where the posse catches up with them. There’s nowhere to run.

The ringleader, whose last name was Jarvis, is taken to jail in Mobile along with his lookout. Mr. Hurt dies in the hospital, but not before his wife can make her way back to Alabama to see him one last time. Jarvis is ultimately executed. And Audrey is left to keep on working at the bank.

But our story doesn’t end here. 

After the robbery, Mrs. Hurt understandably had little desire to stay in Citronelle and work at the bank. In need of a new president, the board of directors appointed Wilbur Holder from Jackson, Mississippi. He soon moved to Citronelle with his wife and two little boys. But, after 12 years or so, he leaves the bank.

Now we’re up to about 1940. Audrey’s worked at the bank for 20 years. But let’s back up just a minute because a lot of other things happened during that time.

Right after the robbery in 1928, Audrey noticed that people were borrowing money from the bank to buy homes, but they have nowhere to get insurance. That’s when she decided to start selling insurance on her off days. She also got a wild hair in her 30s to travel to Cuba, so she and a lady friend booked passage from Mobile on a United Fruit Company ship. Turns out, their vacation was during the revolution when Batista was trying to overthrow Machado. She travels by train to California and Colorado unchaperoned. Audrey marries my grandfather, Fred Malone, in 1938. The next year, they have a child who died as a toddler. My mama comes along a few years later. 

I should also mention that in her late 30s, Audrey develops a rare form of arthritis called Marie-Strumpell disease which usually attacks the spine. From then on, she has an extremely limited range of spinal motion. Her back is literally stiff as a board. And, in the early 40s, my grandfather contracts tuberculosis, so Audrey cares for him, along with her infant daughter, and sees to it that he has the best treatment possible, including taking him to the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans and arranging for him to spend time at a sanitarium in New Mexico. It must have worked because my grandfather lived well up into his 70s.

All the time, Audrey keeps right on working at the bank. Saving her money. Buying up little bits of stock as she can.

Audrey also lends money to anyone whom she thinks can pay it back, including a Black woman named Rosa A. Lott, who takes this money and attends Alabama State Teachers College. But why is Rosa Lott so important to this story, you might ask? Well, when Rosa comes back home to Citronelle after college, she tirelessly lobbies the Mobile County School Board to build a high school for Black children in Citronelle, and, in 1949, they finally do. Rosa Lott serves as its principal until she dies in 1952, and it was in that very same building, then integrated and called Rosa A. Lott Elementary School, that I attended grade school in the mid-70s.

Back to 1940. There’s no bank president, so the board appoints Sam Andrews, another stockholder and owner of Citronelle’s hardware store, as the new president. But Sam has his own business to run, so
Audrey is now essentially managing the bank. At one point, Sam even offers to sell her his stock in the bank, but at the time, she can’t afford to buy it. Granny always said that she was never paid a fair wage no matter how hard she worked.

In 1942, Sam decides that he wants to focus solely on his hardware business, and some of the other men want to oust Audrey entirely, even though she’s well-loved in the community and has helped countless people over the years. Granny once said to me about this turn of events that “men just don’t want women to do things.”

Everything is coming to a head at a very contentious board meeting when Audrey remembers Sam’s offer to sell his stock. She knows that if she can get his shares, combined with the stock she’s bought little by little over the years, she’ll have the controlling interest. In front of the all-male board, Audrey asks Sam if he remembers making her that offer. A man of integrity, Sam says he does remember it, much to the shock of his fellow board members.

“Does your offer still stand?”  Audrey asks.

“It does,” Sam replies.

A few days later, when the purchase was complete, my grandmother was appointed President of the Citronelle State Bank and served in that capacity for the next 30 years, ultimately selling the business to Merchant’s National Bank (now Regions Bank). And for a good bit of that time, she was the only female bank president in Alabama. Of her board coup, Granny said, “You have to be there when the time comes and have your facts all gathered up.”

As we think about trailblazers, let’s remember all the women like my granny. Women who worked twice as hard for half the pay. Women who lifted other women up. Women who had side hustles, families and responsibilities, but still found time to laugh, learn, love and pray. Women who paved the way in sweat and blood for you, me and generations to come.

Let’s remember a little farm girl who became a bank president.

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