By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
As some observe the 2024 Black History Month theme, “African-Americans and the Arts,” the Pearl Bailey mural in Newport News puts a familiar face on this year’s theme, due to the fact that Bailey had a profound impact on her hometown and the nation.
The name of the Tony-and-Emmy Awards-winning singer graces the Pearl Bailey Library, located at 2510 Wickham Ave., in Newport News. The library offers numerous services including computer labs, literacy stations, printers, iPad kiosks, cell phone charging stations, and bike racks. Bailey’s face also graces an outdoor mural In Annapolis. It was erected in 2021 in Annapolis’ 2nd Ward.
Bailey’s Annapolis mural is painted outside of the Whitmore Parking Garage. Located in a now-demolished Black business district that was torn down during urban renewal, it once housed at least 33 minority businesses and numerous homes. Bailey used to perform at many Annapolis businesses including Susie’s Tea Room, Dixie Hotel, and The Washington Hotel.
Not bad for the daughter of the Rev. Joseph James Bailey, a Newport News pastor, who nurtured his daughter’s musical talents in his church.
“From him,” she once told an interviewer, “I got the wisdom, the philosophizing, the soul.”
Her parents divorced when she was young. She grew up at her mother’s home, which moved from Newport News, to Philadelphia, to Washington, D.C.
Bailey often traced her acting talents to her mother, Ella Mae Bailey. “She could say more with a flick of a wrist … than any words,” she once said.
Bailey was 15 when she quit high school, left home, and soon landed gigs with Count Basie, Cab Calloway and first performed on Broadway in 1946.
“Pearl Bailey pulls the show up by its shoestrings every time she makes an entrance,” a Broadway critic wrote. She won the 1946 Donaldson Award as Broadway’s best newcomer.
The next year, she appeared in her first film, “Variety Girl.” Her second film was “Isn’t It Romantic.”
But it is important to point out that her name graces a Newport News library that contains cutting-edge electronic equipment that did not exist when she was born in Newport News in 1918. The point is Bailey had a habit of transforming the world around her, which describes this year’s Black History Month theme.
According to the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History which selects the annual theme for Black History Month, this year’s theme aims to focus on Black artists who highlight “the art of resistance and the artists who used their crafts to uplift the race, speak truth to power and inspire a nation.”
In a sense, this year’s theme mirrors Bailey’s attitudes during the vaudeville era. Bailey once said, “I have a go-for-it attitude about education, about life, about everything. You can’t spend your life waiting around. You go for it.”
Bailey’s impact on her hometown and the nation comes sharply into focus, as you scroll through her bio. Five years before Bailey passed in 1990 at the age of 72, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia after collapsing at a hotel where she had been staying – Newport News named a public library after her.
“In 1985, Newport News Public Library opened the Pearl Bailey Library at its current location,” according to a statement on the Newport News Library website. “The name was chosen by the community after the Library Board ran an ad campaign in the Daily Press for suggestions.”
Artist Asa Jackson completed Bailey’s outdoor mural in Newport News. It was unveiled on March 29, 2018, on what would have been Bailey’s 100th birthday.