Peal Bailey was an acclaimed actress, singer, and performer who defied expectations and built a career that was as varied as it was impressive.
Pearl was born in Virginia on 29th March, 1918. Her father was a Pentecostal preacher, and she grew up singing and dancing in his church. Though Pearl initially planned to become a teacher, a talent show win when she was twelve years old gave her a taste of what it would be like to be a professional performer, and from that moment on, she was hooked.
Pearl ultimately dropped out of high school in order to pursue a career in the arts, and she quickly became active in the vaudeville circuit. Though she started out performing primarily in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t long before she was working regularly in New York City and Washington DC. She soon won another career-altering contest, this one at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
Following her win at the Apollo, word of Pearl’s talent spread, and soon, she transitioned from performing in nightclubs to performing in Broadway musicals.
Pearl made her Broadway debut in a 1946 production of St. Louis Woman, where her stand-out performance resulted in her winning the Donaldson Award for Best Newcomer on Broadway. She went on to perform in a number of other Broadway shows over the next several decades, most notably an all-black production of Hello Dolly, for which she won a Tony award in 1967.
In addition to her work onstage, Pearl also developed a successful film and television career, working with everyone from Dorothy Dandridge to Sidney Poitier and even hosting her own TV show: The Pearl Bailey Show. She was also an author who penned six books.
Pearl used her success on stage and screen to try and make the world a better place. She was active in humanitarian work and fought for human rights. She served as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations under three different administrations, and in 1970 Richard Nixon appointed her “America’s Ambassador of Love.” She also toured with the USO for nearly 50 years.
Though Pearl had, as a child, made a decision to prioritise performing over receiving an education, education was nevertheless important to her. As such, when she was in her 60s, she decided to go back to school, ultimately receiving an undergraduate degree in theology from Georgetown University at the age of 67.
Pearl died on 17th August 1990, after a long, rich life. She left behind a powerful legacy as both an artist and an activist, and she paved the way for generations of African American artists to come.
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