Anna Warren's friends call her the "slave driver." They tell her she was born 150 years too late.
Today, the slave driver is busy orchestrating a Christmas party for the children of Claremont Homes, a public housing development of 444 units in northeast Baltimore.
Warren is president of the Claremont Tenants Council, a position she has held for 18 years. Yesterday, she led her troops in packing boxes of food for 70 families at Claremont Homes who might not have a Christmas dinner otherwise.
Warren has lived 30 of her 54 years right here in Claremont Homes. And she says in a voice strong and true: "It's about time somebody said something good about people living in public housing."
Warren not only says it, but also demonstrates that it merits being said. She has spurred the tenants' council through the years to solicit food for the Christmas baskets and toys for the Christmas party, to serve a New Year's dinner for the elderly residents, to collect clothes for any residents, and to reopen the recreation center after the city closed it because of budget cuts.
Earlier this year, after a 12-year-old boy shot and wounded an 11-year-old girl who lived in Claremont Homes, Warren led residents on anti-drug marches throughout the development and chased drug dealers off the street.
The shooting was not directly linked to drugs, but Warren said it was an indirect result of drug dealing and street violence. It shocked residents into realizing what could happen if they allowed drug dealers to continue prowling the streets.
"Mind you, I'm not saying we got rid of drugs," Warren said. "But now you don't have to say 'excuse me' when you walk down the street."
Margaret McDaniels, one of Warren's lieutenants, said she was scared to sit out on her front porch.
"You heard shots all the time. You never knew if a bullet was going to go flying or not," she said. "Heck, we had taxicabs and limos, you name it. They'd pull up at all hours either buying or selling."
When the city closed the recreation center at Claremont Homes a couple of years ago ("They came in here one day like the Colts and took the Pingpong table and the pool table," Warren said), she and her tenants' council arranged to staff the center themselves for free, and eventually the housing authority allowed them to reopen it.
It's open now from 3 to 5 or 6 p.m. most days. The first hour is a study period, and after that the children play games, including pool and Pingpong. (Warren got the city to give the tables back.)
"Yeah, we got it open, but it ain't as open as we need it," said Warren, typically lobbying for more money and equipment. "It's a sin, when everybody's talking about fighting drugs, that they take everything away from you that could help."
Each year, Warren and her helpers write 500 letters to banks, businesses, churches, anyone they can think of, asking for donations of food, money or toys for the Christmas baskets and today's children's party.
"We get cramps in our hands from writing," Warren said. "We don't look for them to give us a lot, but if we get $20 it helps."
They get enough in donations to stuff 70 boxes overflowing with food, and to give 300 children at least one toy apiece.
As Warren was talking yesterday, she interrupted herself to toss an order in this direction or a suggestion in that direction. The workers packing boxes complied diligently.
"When I'm talking and saying 'me' all the time," Warren said, "I'm really talking about everybody here. I mean that it's me and all these people who volunteer for these things."
She means Helen Placek, a retired Claremont school guard who comes back to help out, and Eva Saunders, a counselor for the housing authority who works closely with the tenants' council. And she especially means Laurine Brockington, Lillian Canada, Earl M. Jones, Margaret McCardell, Mary McCormick, Margaret McDaniels, Marge Miller and Gladys Wolf -- some of the good people who live in public housing.