This photo was taken by Warren K. Leffler on 8/28/63 and shared via Wikimedia Commons
As MLK day comes to a close, I am once again posting the name of Miss Pearly Busey on the internet because it will mean that her memory is not lost.
Miss Pearl, or as she eventually allowed me to call her Pearl, was born before WWI on a sharecropper farm in Alabama. She was a mix of Black (she used the term Negro) and Native American. When I knew her, in the very early 80’s, the term African American was not yet popular, not sure if she would like it. Her Native American roots were very apparent in her face, flat with high cheekbones. She would be attractive, almost exotic in our time. In her day, she struggled with not being clearly one race or another. I think when she was a girl she was not treated well in this regard and it left its scars.
Anyhow, as soon as she could, which in her case ended up being during the Depression, she escaped the horrors of a life in the segregated Jim Crow deep south and came to Washington, DC. She was part of the wave of young people who were streaming out of the south, seeking opportunity and a better life in the north. She had almost no education but was sharp as can be. She worked in factories for years and then, because she was older and not physically fit, ended up working for a store in downtown DC, where I met her.
We worked together for a year and a half and went through some intense experiences. We were robbed at gunpoint together and I learned so much from her in the experience. She kept her cool like a sphinx, probably kept us alive. Every morning she sent me out to run errands, which included getting her coffee, newspapers and cigarettes. We had very few customers because we were a decor store. We had lots of time to sit around talking and doing crossword puzzles.
She referred to me as the KID. She told the KID her life story over that time. I choose this day to talk about Pearl and breathe life into her memory because the day that meant the most to her, of all of her days, was Aug. 28, 1963. On that day she felt brave enough to go down to the Mall to attend what was actually scary for her; the civil rights movement was not something she was comfortable with. When she was a girl, she witnessed the aftermath of lynchings. She was not interested in stirring up trouble and just wanted to live her life. But it was stifling hot that day and several of her friends were attending. It was promoted to be a peaceful event and that preacher was going to speak…they didn’t yet know his name, but he had a growing reputation and Mahalia Jackson was rumored to being singing gospel songs. So she went with her friends to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
That day changed her life. Prior, she never felt strong or proud and even that being a Negro was OK. That preacher’s words changed all of that. As if she were reborn, she felt hope and suddenly she wasn’t an unattractive woman just existing any longer. She didn’t become a civil rights leader nor did she fully commit to active involvement, especially as downtown DC exploded in racial violence in the years to come, but she was changed. She started going out more, being less afraid, eventually she got a car, with air conditioning! She developed a love for jazz because she loved jazz clubs, that was where the interesting men were. She dated and had a life.
None of this sounds like a big deal, but to Miss Pearl it was massive. Before our downtown store moved to White Flint (suburbs north of DC), I showed Miss Pearl an ad for Lena Horne performing at a jazz club off of M Street in Georgetown and suggested that she go with a friend. I had forgotten about it until the day of the show when she insisted that I drive her car over there because she didn’t know Georgetown. Evidently, I was the friend she choose. The store moved and she started to call in sick a lot. It wasn’t long until she was ‘retiring’. I had already quit the job and was moving on with my future when I got a call to come visit Pearl. Saying goodbye was a honor. She died proud and brave with a feeling of hope and freedom.
I thank Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for giving her that, for giving millions of Miss Pearl Buseys out there that.