Women’s History Month: Pearl Bailey, singer, actress and icon

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Pearl Bailey was a famed singer, actress and author from Newport News (WYDaily/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

NEWPORT NEWS — When talking about influential women from Hampton Roads, Pearl Bailey might come to mind.

Pearl Bailey, a Newport News native, was a world-renowned actress, singer, and author. It is in her hometown that she continues to be honored with the Pearl Bailey Library.  

Pearl was born on March 29, 1918 to Reverend Joseph James and Ella Mae Ricks Bailey. She was also the sister of famed dancer, Bill Bailey. Pearl started entertaining audiences from an early age, winning competitions in Philadelphia and at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

Pearl graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, the first city in the region to offer an accredited public high school for black students. She studied alongside future blues singer, Ruth Brown. 

After graduating from high school, Pearl began her career in the 1930s by performing in Philadelphia’s black nightclubs. It did not take long for her to find fame on stage, in film and, later, on television. She received a Tony award for her performance in a 1967 all-black production of the musical, “Hello, Dolly!”

Pearl also appeared in hit movies such as, “Variety Girl,” “Isn’t It Romantic?” “Carmen Jones,” and “Porgy and Bess.”

Bailey received a Tony Award for her performance in the all-black production of Hello, Dolly! (WYDaily/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In 1971, she hosted her own variety show on ABC, fittingly titled, “The Pearl Bailey Show.” Pearl’s show  featured a stream of famous guests, including Lucille Ball and Louis Armstrong. 

Pearl also wrote six books throughout her life, three of which were memoirs. At the age of 67, she earned a degree in theology from Georgetown University. 

In addition to her talent and success in entertainment, Pearl was also known for her compassion and kindness towards all human beings.

She used her fame and influence for good causes, working towards AIDS prevention and awareness. She also advocated for the importance of youth literacy. Pearl served as a United States Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations. In 1988, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her personal commitment to helping others.

Pearl was married to jazz drummer, Louie Bellson, and they had two children, Tony and Dee Dee. 

On August 17, 1990, she died in Philadelphia from coronary artery disease. After her death, Pearl’s legacy lives on right here in Hampton Roads. In 1998, the City of Newport News honored one of their favorite daughters by naming its library on Wickham Avenue in honor of her. 

In 2018, the library unveiled a mural of its namesake on what would have been her 100th birthday.

The mural remains there as a reminder to her hometown of Pearl’s talent, success, and passion for helping others.

For more information about Pearl Bailey and her storied career, click here.

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