Photograph by Elizabeth DeRamus. Illustration by Stacy Reece.
Photograph by Elizabeth DeRamus. Illustration by Stacy Reece.

“Do You Know About Ernestine Crowell?”

Ernestine Crowell is the self-described “militant Black woman” who rides herd over the 105 members of Alabama’s House of Representatives. She is feared. She is beloved. She is one of a kind.

Outside the fifth-floor elevators at the Alabama State House of Representatives in Montgomery, a white-haired man wearing a seersucker suit with a bowtie walks past a petite woman talking to a group of visitors.

“Holdin’ court again, I see, guv’nor,” he says to Ernestine Crowell, as she stands in front of the information desk where she’s been stationed for the past 40 years.

Crowell is the authority, the go-to person for the inner workings of the Alabama State House. Crowell started her job as the legislative receptionist at the Alabama State House during the early 1980s when Fob James, who campaigned as “a born-again Democrat,” was governor. Since then, Crowell has worked through eight administrations. Most recently, she has served under Kay Ivey, who became governor in 2017 after Robert Bentley resigned owing to a sex scandal involving a political aide.

All of the 105 representatives have their own secretaries, but all incoming calls and messages are first routed through Crowell. Over the years, Crowell has made it her mission to help every constituent who calls with a problem, doing her best to connect folks to the help they need.

“I’ve seen everything,” she says. “Each day is different. There’s never a dull moment.”

Never Make Her Angry

When Republicans swept the house in 2010, Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard advised each new member not to leave the building before meeting Crowell. As she met the nervous freshman, she informed each one of them, “I’m here to help you. I work for you. But I need your name, your phone number, and your spouse’s phone number, because if you get out of line, I will kick your butt and call your wife.” (To this day, women hold only 18 of the 105 house seats.)

“I will go to bat for them, but they know not to mess with me, and I don’t let them forget it. I’m a militant black woman.”

Crowell calls the representatives “my 105 fourth graders” because they remind her of the fourth-grade students who tour the statehouse every school year.

Freshman politicians quickly learn Crowell is indispensable and not to be trifled with.

“I will go to bat for them, but they know not to mess with me, and I don’t let them forget it,” she says. “I’m a militant black woman.”

Ernestine Crowell in the Alabama House chamber (photograph by Elizabeth DeRamus)
Ernestine Crowell in the Alabama House chamber (photograph by Elizabeth DeRamus)

She delivers the same message to all the men and women who represent the 105 districts across Alabama: “I’m your go-to person for your constituents. You don’t want to ever make me angry because I talk to your constituents before you do. And if I’m angry at you, I’m going say to them, ‘Well, you know he’s elected, but I’ve never seen him since he’s always out.’”

Even seasoned politicians tread lightly around Crowell. She tells about the time early in her career when she took a message and gave it to Jimmy Holley, who will soon retire after more than 40 years in the Alabama legislature. He immediately tossed it back at her and said, “That’s not me.”

She bristled. “How the hell am I supposed to know?” she asked him. “All you white people look alike.”

At countless social gatherings after that, Holley regaled his audience with this story. One day, his wife called to tell Crowell that she couldn’t bear another minute if her husband repeated that story one more time.

Crowell loves to harass people, and when I arrived to interview her and told the security guard I was visiting Ms. Crowell, he asked, “Do you know about Ernestine Crowell?” He was concerned I might not be prepared for what I was about to encounter.

Serving All Constituents

At Crowell’s desk, photographs from the constituents she's helped cover the wall beside her, and a wooden gavel engraved with “Attitude Adjuster” sits close by. One time, when an uptight lobbyist who was accompanying the new president of Auburn University tried to walk past her desk without saying hello, she stopped them and introduced herself. She let the new Auburn president know, “If you do a good job, I will call and check on you.” She demanded his business card, and a few months later, she called him. He answered the phone, laughing delightedly. To this day, they are friends.

Crowell with her "attitude adjuster" (photograph by Elizabeth DeRamus)
Crowell with her "attitude adjuster" (photograph by Elizabeth DeRamus)

Answering the phone at the information desk may sound like a simple job, but most often Crowell’s responsibility is to assist people in dire straits by navigating, directing, and connecting them to the appropriate services throughout the state. “This state has serious problems, but the people who represent it will get my call and help get it done,” she says. “It’s not like snapping your fingers. You have to work at it.”

Each day when Crowell answers her phone, she’s confronted with every situation imaginable — housing problems, healthcare emergencies, transportation challenges, mental health issues, legal problems, and economic insecurity. When upset constituents call, she does her best to handle whatever need or crisis is facing them.

“This state has serious problems, but the people who represent it will get my call and help get it done. It’s not like snapping your fingers. You have to work at it.”

When a disabled veteran called — cold, hungry and homeless, living above a boat repair shop — she immediately enlisted the vast network of contacts and lobbyists she often relies on. She doesn’t quit until she’s figured out a solution, no matter how difficult. Here, she found the veteran shelter and medical care, and eventually reunited him with his daughter in Georgia.

Since she deals with a fair number of senior citizens struggling with Medicaid issues, she has a particular source for Medicaid help, Henry Davis, the director of the Alabama Medicaid Agency. She and Davis, Crowell says, “are two pit bulls when helping veterans and seniors.” And when a situation demands it, she even places calls to Washington on behalf of constituents.

Raised to Help People

Crowell grew up in southeast Alabama’s Russell County. She watched her mother freeze vegetables from their gardens during the summer — in those days, food stamps did not exist — to give to the older neighbors during the winter. Her father, a truck driver, owned a car, so he often drove people where they needed to go. When neighbors had problems, they called Crowell’s father.

“I was raised to help the less fortunate,” she says.

When constituents need help, Crowell connects them with the various government and nonprofit agencies that can provide it. Other times, Crowell contributes out of her own pocket. When an out-of-state family with a sick child in a Mobile hospital ran out of money for the storage unit containing all their possessions, she enlisted several lobbyists. They split the bill to help the family weather the rough patch in the road.

In a predominantly red state with a myriad of social ills, Crowell makes sure partisan politics, race and class play no part in her job and mission: assisting people in Alabama as they struggle with overwhelming obstacles.

“There are so many problems people are facing that they eventually show up at the information desk at the House of Representatives,” she says.

When Crowell goes to work, she leaves her personal politics outside the door. She says she and her husband, a retired brigadier general in the United States Air Force, cancel each other’s votes, so “I dish out my frustrations on him.”

During the workday, she says, “sometimes I have to grit my teeth or kick something under the desk,” but she doesn’t let her opinions interfere with her job or her relationships. Instead, Crowell speaks fondly of politicians as friends, many she has known for years. She was recently heartbroken when a longtime friend she first met at work died. After another retired colleague’s wife died, “I called and told him I was peeking through his windows and to clean up his house.” She didn’t have to go to his house to know that in his grief he’d probably let the dishes pile up in the sink.

After working at the State House of Representatives for so long, Crowell knows most people will need help at one point or another and that good people with problems simply need someone to listen. All these years, she has kept a blue notebook, chronicling people’s calls, their names, the date and other important notes. Because she cares and worries, she often checks up for years afterwards on folks who concern her the most.

“I have one man I’ve been dealing with for a long time,” Crowell says. “The last time I talked to him he wasn’t doing well and could barely talk, but I could hear him breathing, and I told him I would call him back. It just scares me to death he hasn’t answered the phone recently.”

Crowell sometimes wonders how a particular person finds her, but then she realizes it’s simple. She believes it’s only “by the grace of God” that the people in need connect with her, “because if they get me, I’m hurting for them, and I will find a solution.”


About the author

Lanier Isom is a journalist based in Birmingham, Alabama, coauthor of the award-winning memoir Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond. The film Lilly, based on her book, starring Patricia Clarkson, is in post-production. Her work has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Los Angeles TimesThe Lily and Huffington Post. A frequent contributor to, she is an Alabama Library Association Nonfiction Award recipient and a 2023 Alabama State Council on the Arts Fellow.

6 thoughts on ““Do You Know About Ernestine Crowell?””

  1. This is a lovely story about a lovely lady, Ms. Ernestine Crowell. I do not know Ms. Crowell, but I love stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Ms. Crowell’s story is one that pays tribute to one who relishes in just being herself. Kudos to the author who honored her with his tribute.

  2. This was an awesome article about an awesome lady. When I was first elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, Ernestine was my lifeline. She knew who to call for just about any issue that could arise. She pulls out her little tattered address book and starts thumbing through it. She makes it a point to know your spouse and will threaten you with a phone call to your spouse if you step out of line. It is always a joy to have conversation with Ernestine and she will be one of the people I have met while serving that will never be forgotten. Thank you for sharing a small bit of the bright star, Ernestine with your readers and her wit with whomever she meets.

  3. On behalf of Senator Jimmy Holley, I’m (Jim’s wife Mary) replying to this wonderful story about our dear friend Ernestine. Jim and I cherish every single memory we have of our relationship with this dear lady who could be both kind and firm in the same breath.

  4. One of the brightest shining lights of mine and my husband Representative Mike Holmes’s nine years at the Alabama State House has been knowing and loving Ernestine Crowell. She is an absolute delight and boosts the morale of everyone she comes in contact with.
    I think she knows almost every member of our immediate family. And she has been invaluable to Mike. We will both miss you, Ernestine! But we will come visit, and bring the grandchildren! Shirley Holmes

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